Bush Makes Push for Mideast Peace
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The Saudis are there. Syria has sent a delegation. Some four dozen countries and organizations are gathered today in Annapolis, Maryland in hopes of launching Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.
President Bush called the meeting, then lowered expectations, and now says he'll stand back and let Israeli and Palestinian leaders make a start at working out their own future.
Though this will be mainly a day of speeches and promises, some participants have come expecting more, particularly from Mr. Bush.
NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.
MICHELE KELEMEN: President Bush has spoken only in broad terms about what an eventual peace deal would entail. That was again the case last night at a State Department banquet when he toasted Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Ohmert, Palestinian authority President Mahmoud Abbas, and other dignitaries gathered for the Annapolis conference.
(Soundbite of presidential speech)
President GEORGE BUSH: We've come together this week because we share a common goal - two democratic states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace and security. Achieving this goal requires difficult compromises, and the Israelis and Palestinians have elected leaders committed to making them.
KELEMEN: His national security adviser, Stephen Hadley, has said this is not the time for the U.S. to put out specific ideas such as where the borders should be or how Jerusalem could be shared.
But Saudi Arabia's foreign minister, Prince Saud Al-Faisal, says he came here because he's been assured that the Bush administration will use its full influence, and he said the president's words today will matter.
Prince SAUD AL-FAISAL (Foreign Minister, Saudi Arabia): Very important for everyone, not just for me. It is important for the peace process as a whole. Without the full commitment of the United States in this regard, I don't think things will move.
KELEMEN: The Bush administration wanted the Saudis and other key Arab states here to help the Palestinians and to show the Israelis that there's a prospect for a wider peace with the Arab world.
But speaking yesterday afternoon at the Saudi embassy, Saud Al-Faisal said his country won't normalize ties with Israel until there is a peace deal. And he made clear he has no plans to shake hands with the Israeli prime minister in Annapolis for the sake of a photo-op.
Prince AL-FAISAL: Shaking hands is to give an impression of something that is not there. There are no good relations between Israel and the Arab world. What do we shake hands about? Let's make peace and then shake hands.
KELEMEN: The Israelis and Palestinians have said their goal is to reach a peace deal by the time President Bush leaves office. The idea of the meeting in Annapolis is to get enough international support for this latest effort and to help the Palestinians lay the groundwork for eventual statehood.
That's where other delegations fit in. The European Union's commissioner for external relations, Benita Ferrero-Waldner, spoke in an interview yesterday about the need for follow-up.
Ms. BENITA FERRERO-WALDNER: After Annapolis, there will be an important pledging conference in Paris, where we Europeans of course will maintain our high levels of support to the Palestinians, but where we also want to see burden-sharing by our Arab friends.
KELEMEN: She says the European Union and its member states together have given about $1.5 billion in aid to the Palestinians this year and are promising now to intensify efforts to build up Palestinian institutions, jumpstart the economy, and keep encouraging Israelis to ease restrictions on the Palestinians.
Ms. FERRERO-WALDNER: I think it's highly important that on the ground things can change. If there is no change on the ground, then the political process might get stuck.
KELEMEN: But just who will monitor all this?
Waldner says the best option is the so-called quartet - the U.S., European Union, United Nations and Russia - a group that met yesterday and will be a part of the conference today in Annapolis.
Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.