US will try to close Israeli-Palestinian peace deal by 2009

Rice: Annapolis to be launching pad for negotiations; says US will give room for other conflicts, including Syrian claim over Golan Heights.

rice abbas smile 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
rice abbas smile 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Wednesday the United States will try to close a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians before President George W. Bush's term ends in January 2009, but she cautioned there is no guarantee of success. Rice said Israeli and Palestinian leaders have pledged to work for a deal setting up an independent Palestinian state before President George W. Bush leaves office. "We all know how long that is - it's about a year," Rice told reporters. "That's what we will try to do." Rice said success is not guaranteed during that period. Rice and Bush are hosting Israeli and Palestinian leaders next week in Washington and at an international conference in Annapolis, the capital of Maryland about 80 kilometers from the US capital. The conference is supposed to launch the first direct negotiations on a peace deal in seven years. The top US diplomat said the Annapolis session is an important launching pad for talks to settle Israel's conflict with the Palestinians and their disputes over land, nationhood and rights that underlies the Jewish state's other problems with Arab neighbors. Rice said the United States will give room for those other conflicts to be aired at Annapolis, including Syria's dispute with Israel over the Golan Heights. She did not say exactly who will attend, and the guest list is not expected to be final until the weekend. Bush called Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Wednesday to discuss the conference, and also phoned Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak about the session, the White House said. Egypt is one of only two Arab states that have negotiated peace deals with Israel, and the country is serving as something of a go-between for other Arab nations in the run-up to Annapolis. Egypt has pledged to attend. The invitations to the three-day session went out Tuesday after months of intense diplomacy. The Bush administration announced few details beyond the dates and a cursory schedule. The two sides are expected to present a joint statement on resuming peace talks at Annapolis, yet less than a week before their delegations are to arrive in the United States, the document exists only in vague form. Rice said the document's focus changed during weeks of preliminary meetings between Olmert and Abbas and ultimately became less important as the two leaders decided between them that they wanted to begin full negotiations. The conference will be anchored around a marathon session Tuesday at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, to be opened by Bush. The US president is to meet with Olmert and Abbas and address a dinner of all participants in Washington the day before. Back in Washington on Wednesday, Bush plans to see Olmert and Abbas again privately for a third time in as many days, ostensibly to seal their intent to create a Palestinian state by the end of his second term. The intense White House involvement in a meeting that was planned to be run almost entirely by Rice when first broached in July took some by surprise and was seen as a sign Bush is making a serious bid for a Middle East foreign policy success. He leaves office in January 2009. "This conference will be a launching point for negotiations leading to the establishment of a Palestinian state and the realization of Israeli-Palestinian peace," said White House National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe. Aside from Olmert and Abbas, who received their invitations ahead of the 47 other countries, organizations and individuals, few parties made immediate public commitments to participate at the foreign minister level. The invitation list includes select members of the Arab League, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, the international diplomatic "quartet" on the Middle East and its special envoy, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, the Group of Eight industrialized nations and the European Union. Among Muslim countries, there has been great suspicion of the conference with many nations questioning the Bush administration's ability to forge peace, particularly between two leaders, Olmert and Abbas, weakened by internal political turmoil. US officials, led by Bush and Rice - the secretary has made eight trips to the region this year - insist that the talks will be "serious and substantive," not merely a photo opportunity, and also will address the issue of a broader Arab-Israeli peace.