(photo credit: AP)
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney criticized the timing of the Annapolis peace conference in an interview with The Jerusalem Post Saturday and said the Palestinians have not taken the steps necessary for peace.
"I do not believe that this is a time when my expectations would suggest a major peace breakthrough," Romney said of the international meeting beginning Monday night.
He pointed to the tenuous hold Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has on power following the coup which left Hamas in control of Gaza, as well as "the fact that the Palestinians have not put in place the security institutions or the governmental institutions which were the doorway to the road map."
Romney backed the phased implementation approach of the internationally backed road map peace plan, which calls for Palestinian security and governance reform - as well as a freeze on Israeli settlements and removal of outposts - before substantive negotiations begin.
He stressed, though, "It's important to me that we not in any way place pressure on Israel to take action which would further weaken its negotiating hand."
Romney spoke to the Post after a campaign stop in a small town community center attached to a fire station here. Standing in front of a towering American flag, he addressed New Hampshire voters on questions ranging from social security to the national debt to Pakistan.
Romney's comments on the Annapolis meeting put him at odds with the Bush administration, which has been the architect of the conference, in a sign of the growing willingness of Republican candidates to stake out differences with Bush policies.
"There's not a really great political necessity for Republican presidential candidates to move in lockstep with President Bush at all, and particularly not in the nuances of American foreign policy in the Middle East," said one Republican Jewish activist who is a long-time observer of Washington politics, pointing to Bush's flagging approval ratings.
The activist, who asked that his name not be used due to the political sensitivities involved, added that taking a critical stance on the Annapolis parley would serve candidates such as Romney well with the Republican base: "It is very much on the side of a strong Israel that isn't forced to make concessions to an Arab adversary that is seen as being on the wrong side of the greater war against terror."
Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, is particularly eager to shore up his credentials with the Republican party's large evangelical constituency, which generally holds hawkish views on the Middle East.
Despite concerns raised by some evangelicals about Romney's Mormon faith, he is leading most polls in the conservative states of Iowa and New Hampshire.
But former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who holds more liberal views on social issues, is ahead in national polls, where Romney trails significantly.
Giuliani, who is running largely on security issues after his prominent role in the aftermath of September 11 propelled him to the national stage, has also expressed skepticism about peace efforts between Israelis and Palestinians.
Earlier this year he went farther than Romney did in disparaging the concept of a Palestinian state, writing in Foreign Affairs that, "Too much emphasis has been placed on brokering negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians - negotiations that bring up the same issues again and again. It is not in the interest of the United States, at a time when it is being threatened by Islamist terrorists, to assist the creation of another state that will support terrorism."
His foreign policy adviser, Charles Hill, wasn't much more enthusiastic about the Annapolis conference when he told the New York Sun last week: "Israel, as a sovereign ally, can decide with whom it wants to negotiate. But it would be very risky to push toward Palestinian political goals when the institutional foundations of statehood do not exist."
Other Republican candidates, including Arizona Senator John McCain and former Tennessee Senator Fred Thompson, have also been quoted as taking a dim view on the meeting, with Thompson suggesting there's no reason to be optimistic and McCain arguing an encompassing solution would be very difficult to accomplish.
Romney did, however, back the administration's efforts to boost Abbas, whom he called a "more moderate voice" in the Fatah party. "Supporting moderate voices is in my view a good course, and a wise course, but even within Fatah there are voices of intolerance that are not dramatically disparate from those in Hamas," he said. "We want to support Abbas and the new prime minister, but at the same time, we have to keep in check our expectations."
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