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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

With the Mideast conference getting under way tomorrow in Annapolis, the three leader, at the center of it, will be at the White House today. Meeting separately with President Bush will be Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Both leaders face a mixture of apathy and opposition back home.

Robert Malley is with the International Crisis Group specializing in the Middle East.

Good Morning.

Mr. ROBERT MALLEY (Middle East and North Africa Program Director, International Crisis Group): Good morning.

MONTAGNE: Let's start with the Israeli prime minister. How much support does Ehud Olmert have there in Israel regarding this peace conference?

Mr. MALLEY: Well, it's a mixed picture. There's support among the wide ranges of the population for a peace deal with the Palestinians. There's great skepticism that the Palestinians can deliver on any peace agreement, and there's just great cynicism after years of confrontation with the Palestinians. And after years during which the notion of reaching a peace deal with them has eroded quite significantly.

MONTAGNE: Well, obviously, it's a great question whether the Palestinians could deliver under Mahmoud Abbas. The biggest one being the slip between the rival factions - Fatah, which he's a leader of, and the more radical Hamas, which is not at the conference. How can Mahmoud Abbas speak for all Palestinians?

Mr. MALLEY: Well, that is a real problem. I mean, he certainly can speak in the name of the Palestine Liberation Organization, which is supposed to represent all Palestinians, but that's becoming increasingly a fiction because, as you say, he doesn't represent those Palestinians, who feel that Hamas is a legitimate government. And they've now been dismissed from the government. He doesn't control all of his territory because he's in control of the West Bank and barely because of the Israeli Defense Forces that truly control the situation, and he's not in control of Gaza.

So he has a real problem not only of negotiating, but even more so of delivering of or selling that - any agreement to the Palestinians, let alone implementing it. But he does have still majority support among Palestinians. He's still viewed by most of them as their representative, and he hopes that through this processed, he can strengthen the legitimacy that he still has.

MONTAGNE: Saudi Arabia and Syria are participating, after some back and forth as to whether each of those places would. Are they likely to be helpful?

Mr. MALLEY: Well, they will be helpful in their own way. By coming, they believe they are being helpful. They're not going to take enormous risks as they see it because they are - they too are both skeptical about the process and fearful that by being becoming more engaged in it, they're going to lose more credibility in their own public's eyes because, let's not forget, that for most Arabs anything that has - that reeks of the peace process of the past lacks credibility, and anything that the United States is in charge of lacks of credibility even more.

MONTAGNE: And Syria has its own agenda, which is separate from that of the Palestinians with Israel, and that's the return of the Golan Heights.

Mr. MALLEY: That's right. The fact that Syria is coming is maybe, at this point, the only real news coming out of the conference. Most of the questions have already been answered even before the delegates meet in Annapolis.

The one thing that people waiting to hear was when the Syria would come. Syria is coming which can be viewed as a victory for the Bush administration, though I would argue it's even more so a victory for Syria, which has been arguing now for six years, that it is at the center of anything that needs to happen in the Middle East.

And excluding it, the Bush administration has sought to do was a fantasy. They're now back - they're coming back with some reluctance. They're not sending their foreign minister. They're sending their deputy foreign minister which is a way for them to say yes, they have a foot into - in the process, if prepared to give it a chance but they remain very skeptical, and they want to be able to say we told you so if it sells.

MONTAGNE: And we shall be following the conference which begins tomorrow. Thanks very much.

Mr. MALLEY: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: Robert Malley is Middle East and North Africa program director of the International Crisis Group.

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