Moshe Milner/GPO via Getty Images
In this handout image supplied by the Government Press Office (GPO), Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert meets (R) with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (C) and Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayed on Monday in Jerusalem. The meeting took place ahead of a scheduled visit by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
In this handout image supplied by the Government Press Office (GPO), Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert meets (R) with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (C) and Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayed on Monday in Jerusalem. The meeting took place ahead of a scheduled visit by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Moshe Milner/GPO via Getty Images
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is due to make another trip to the Middle East next week, in advance of a U.S.-initiated conference on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to be held in Washington this fall.
Arab leaders and analysts have said more progress needs to be made if the conference is to have any success.
In Amman, Jordan, King Abdullah II voiced his skepticism about the U.S. peace conference in a meeting with Mideast envoy Tony Blair.
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak also said that he could not see what would be accomplished by the meeting.
"I personally see that this conference has no agenda so far," he said. "I don't even know whether it will be a conference or a one-day meeting as some reports say. Unless there is good preparation and a clear agenda, I do not know what the outcome will be."
The flurry of diplomacy that followed the violent takeover of the Gaza Strip by the Islamist Hamas faction initially stirred hopes for some sort of breakthrough.
However, there has been a growing sense that neither Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert nor Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas has enough support among his own people to enable them to make the kind of compromises necessary to bring about a viable Palestinian state next to a secure Israel.
In short, a familiar sense of pessimism has set in.
"We have real doubts about such conference," said Dia Rashwan, an analyst at the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo, Egypt. "Is this a conference of public relations?"
Rashwan said holding a Mideast peace conference in Washington with a U.S. presidential campaign in full swing makes real progress unlikely.
Beyond that, he said the Israeli and U.S. agenda of isolating Hamas and dealing exclusively with the secular Fatah government led by Abbas is unlikely to succeed. Rashwan said such a policy is as short-sighted as the U.S. isolation of Syria.
"In the region, there is no real peace without Syria. In Palestine, there will not be real peace without Hamas," he said. "If Egypt, and Saudis, and the United States of America are really honest for such negotiations, I think that the first mission is how to reconciliate between Palestinians, not to negotiate with just one of them."
Palestinian unity is the primary short term goal for most Arab leaders — especially the Saudis, who in February brokered the Mecca Agreement that led to the short-lived Palestinian unity government.
But it is a difficult subject for Egypt, which has no fondness for Hamas, the Palestinian off-shoot of Egypt's banned Muslim Brotherhood.
Analyst Mohammed Sayyed El-Said, editor of Cario's Al Badeel, said Egypt's ambivalence toward Hamas — and for that matter, Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen — reflects the diplomatic tightrope Cairo has long tried to walk when dealing with the Palestinians.
"Egypt cannot really live happily with a Hamas-dominated Gaza, and it cannot live happily with Hamas out of power entirely. And it's in the best interests of both Israel and Abu Mazen and everyone else that Hamas is accommodated in an authority or power structure that works," he said.
Said believes that both Jerusalem and Washington are committed to their goal of removing Hamas from the political playing field, at least in the short term. He hopes that cooler heads will prevail as it becomes clear that driving Hamas into a corner would leave the Islamist movement only one alternative — to abandon its recent foray into politics and increase its reliance on bloodshed to achieve its aims.
"And the conventional wisdom, here, is, I think, shared by many in the international community. If Hamas is kept out, or pushed out, particularly by violence, it will react by aborting any peace process likely to unfold," he said.
Not everyone is gloomy about Mideast peace prospects.
Bernard Kouchner, visiting Jerusalem for the first time as France's foreign minister, reportedly said a Palestinian state could be created "within weeks."
But in the Arab press, such pronouncements are dismissed as exceedingly optimistic.