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Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice makes another trip to the Middle East next week in advance of a conference initiated by the U.S. on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. That conference is to be held in Washington, D.C. this fall. Arab leaders and analysts say if the conference is to be successful, much more progress needs to be made.

NPR's Peter Kenyon reports from Cairo.

PETER KENYON: In Amman, Jordan's King Abdullah voiced his skepticism about the U.S. peace conference in a meeting with Mideast envoy Tony Blair.

Then Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak told reporters that he couldn't see what would be accomplished by the meeting.

President HOSNI MUBARAK (Egypt): (Through translator) I personally see that this conference has no agenda so far. 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.

KENYON: The flurry of diplomacy that has followed the violent takeover of the Gaza Strip by the Islamist Hamas faction initially stirred hopes for some sort of breakthrough. But as European, American and Arab envoys have shuttled around the region, there's 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 the kind of painful compromises necessary to bring about a viable Palestinian state next to a secure Israel. In short, a familiar sense of pessimism has set in.

Mr. DIAA RASHWAN (Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies): We have real doubts about such conference. Is this a conference of public relations?

KENYON: Analyst Diaa Rashwan at the Al-Ahram Center for Strategic and Political Studies says for one thing, holding a Mid East peace conference in Washington with the U.S. presidential campaign in full swing makes real progress unlikely. Beyond that, he says the Israeli and American agenda of isolating Hamas and dealing exclusively with the secular Fatah government led by Abbas is unlikely to succeed. For his part, Rashwan believes central policy is as short-sighted as the American isolation of Syria.

Mr. RASHWAN: In the region, there is no real peace without Syria. In Palestine, there will not be a peace without Hamas. If Egypt and Saudis and the United States of America are really honest for such negotiation, I think that the first mission is how to reconciliate between Palestinians, not to negotiate with one of them.

KENYON: Palestinian unity is the primary short-term goal for most Arab leaders, especially the Saudis, who brokered the Mecca Agreement earlier this year that led to the short-lived Palestinian unity government. But it's a difficult subject for Egypt, which has no fondness for Hamas, the Palestinian offshoot of Egypt's banned Muslim Brotherhood.

Analyst Mohammed Sayed al-Said(ph), editor of Cairo's Albadil newspaper, says Egypt's ambivalence toward Hamas - and for that matter, Palestinian President Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen - reflects the diplomatic tightrope Cairo has long tried to walk when dealing with the Palestinians.

Mr. MOHAMMED SAYED AL-SAID (Editor, Albadil Newspaper): 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.

KENYON: 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 only 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.

Mr. AL-SAID: And the conventional wisdom here is, you know, 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.

KENYON: 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.

Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Cairo.

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