Expectations Drop for Annapolis Peace Summit

President Bush has been promising to encourage Israelis and Palestinians toward a permanent peace settlement. A meeting to set guidelines was scheduled this month in Annapolis, Md., but analysts are lowering expectations about what the meeting can accomplish.

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The goals for a meeting between Israeli and Palestinian leaders in Annapolis, Maryland later this month are shrinking. The U.S. is inviting Arab states to attend the conference as well. Israeli and Palestinian negotiators got bogged down on setting the agenda. And now, all the talk is about what happens after Annapolis and whether the U.S. will continue to put its diplomatic weight behind negotiations.

NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN: When President Bush first called for the conference back in July, he said he wanted Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to work with Israeli Prime Minster Ehud Olmert, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and key players in the region. The idea was to boost moderates in the Palestinian Authority and build up institutions that would be needed for an eventual state.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: We all can do more to build the conditions for peace. So I will call together an international meeting this fall of representatives from nations that support a two-state solution, reject violence, recognize Israel's right to exist and commit to all previous agreements between the parties.

KELEMEN: Secretary Rice has traveled to the Middle East four times since then and has been sounding upbeat that the Israelis and Palestinians are in their most serious talks in years. She told reporters last month in Jerusalem that negotiators were preparing a document for Annapolis that would address, though not resolve, the core issues facing them, such as Jerusalem, borders, refugees and security.

Secretary CONDOLEEZZA RICE (U.S. Department of State): Both have signaled to me that they want to have these documents signaled, that they agree that there is a basis to move forward for the establishment of a Palestinian state. And that's really what I mean by serious.

KELEMEN: But analysts keeping close tabs on the process say negotiations bogged down. And Palestinians have scaled back their hopes for a preconference document that would set out a framework and timetable for final status talks.

Aaron David Miller of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars says the goals for Annapolis now are more pedestrian.

Mr. AARON DAVID MILLER (Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars): I think it shifted in large part because time is short. The gaps are large. And the political price that both Olmert and Abbas would pay if they didn't get the kind of document they preferred is too great. Therefore, it shifted from that, I think, to using Annapolis to launch presumably a very serious permanent status negotiation on these issues.

KELEMEN: The Israelis and Palestinians are also expected to recommit themselves through confidence-building measures that they agreed to four years ago as part of the so-called roadmap to peace. Palestinians hope that means things like an Israeli settlement freeze.

But overall, Robert Malley of the International Crisis Group says expectations for Annapolis are back down to earth.

Mr. ROBERT MALLEY (Program Director, International Crisis Group): We are at a point which doesn't really satisfy the Palestinians that much is going to lead to considerable skepticism on the outside, but at least allows President Bush, President Abbas and Prime Minister Olmert to say, we're moving forward. We've launched something new. Now, let's hope that something could happen from it.

KELEMEN: But Malley says there are big questions about the day after Annapolis.

Mr. MALLEY: They were not able to reach agreement on even broad outlines of what they're aiming for. So why does anyone have any hope that they're going to be able now to agree on the nitty-gritty?

KELEMEN: And he's not sure about the involvement of major Arab states, whether, for instance, Saudi Arabia will attend the meeting in Annapolis. At a Senate subcommittee hearing yesterday, Assistant Secretary of State David Welch said it's too early to tell which countries will be there.

Mr. DAVID WELCH (Assistant Secretary of State): I have to tell you in all honesty that there's quite a bit of skepticism, not just in the Arab countries, but elsewhere about whether this will work and whether the two parties, in particular, are prepared and ready to do things.

KELEMEN: Though the conference is expected in less than three weeks, U.S. hasn't issued invitations yet.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

NORRIS: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

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