Low Expectations for a Mideast Peace Conference Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has finally coaxed Israeli and Arab diplomats to the negotiating table. The parties will meet next Monday in Annapolis, but the participants are already downplaying possible results.

Low Expectations for a Mideast Peace Conference

Low Expectations for a Mideast Peace Conference

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Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has finally coaxed Israeli and Arab diplomats to the negotiating table. The parties will meet next Monday in Annapolis, but the participants are already downplaying possible results.

MIKE PESCA, host:

It is official. The U.S. State Department confirmed last night that it has indeed sent out invitations to a conference on making peace in the Middle East.

Forty-nine nations and organizations are invited to gather. It'll happen next Monday and Tuesday in Annapolis, Maryland. The State Department hasn't disclosed who has RSVP'ed. So why all the secrecy? We need to know who's coming to the party, if only to know what hors d'oeuvres to serve.

Scott MacLeod is Time Magazine's correspondent in Cairo. He contributes to Time Middle East blog. It's a really good blog, Scott. I've been reading it all morning. How are you doing?

Mr. SCOTT MacLEOD (Correspondent, Time Magazine): Well, thanks. I'm fine. How are you?

PESCA: I'm well. It seems to be that there are so many unknowns with this Middle East Peace Conference. But is it that the State Department doesn't know? Or just me and you don't know, and probably me more than you? We don't know who is coming. Do you know who is coming? Do they know who is coming?

Mr. MacLEOD: Well, I mean, I think it's safe to say that, you know, the major players have been invited. I think that they're all going to show up. I mean, I think what we're talking about, really, is the Arab states. The Palestinians and Israelis will obviously go. The Americans will be there. The members of the quartet will be represented. But the real question was really Saudi Arabia and Syria.

PESCA: Yeah.

Mr. MacLEOD: I'm sure they've been invited. I'm sure they'll show up. I've checked with my sources, and I don't think they're going to say until the Arab league meeting here in Cairo tomorrow where all this is going to be discussed. But I don't think at this stage, the Saudis, in particular, but even the Syrians want to miss the boat. I think that they're not happy with the way the conference is unfolding. But this is the only game in town. And I think they want to play. They - the Saudis, as you know, sponsored the Middle East - the Arab Peace Initiative in 2002.

PESCA: Right. And they want to be seen as the leader on this issue, and they're really important. But let's say we get them all in the room, it's - the conference is only going to last a day. Is that long enough?

Mr. MacLEOD: Well, I think that there is no - it's not really a conference in that sense. I mean, I think all of this is going to be cooked before anyone sits down. I think that the Palestinians and the Israelis will have some kind of a joint statement or a declaration. It's not going to be a kind of outline of the peace agreement that at least the Arab side had pressured for, but it will be at least a repetition of the - all the great intentions and plans of the past, such as the road map of 2002 that President Bush put forth.

But it may go a little further than that. But I think that everyone now is looking not at the conference, but the day after. And I think that the real achievement of this conference, and I haven't been - I've been very skeptical about it from the very beginning. But now I believe that the real achievement that Condoleezza Rice has made is in getting everyone's eye on the ball and launching a process. A lot still has to be done after Annapolis. But I think we'll be able to call it a qualified success for the fact that it happened, and for the fact that it focused everyone's mind after seven very bloody years, again, on talking peace.

ALISON STEWART, host:

So Scott, are you just saying that this one day - we're going to say conference with a very little C - is more of a photo op, that all the decisions would have been made beforehand?

Mr. MacLEOD: Yeah. The Arabs just hate that word, and they don't want it to be a photo op. But, I mean, let's face it. They're not going to negotiate the nitty-gritty of the stuff a day - in one day in Annapolis.

PESCA: Is that a very Bush administration way of thinking about the world? Because, you know, how - when Clinton had his conference at Camp David in 2000, they really did get everyone there, and a lot of things went on. It was really rather messy. I mean, things like, you know - I hear Barack talked to Chelsea Clinton during the dinner more than he talked to the people he was supposed to be talking to. And at one point, I believe Abu Mazen, from the Palestinian National Authority, left in the middle of the conference. Now, he's the leader of the Palestinian National Authority.

Mr. MacLEOD: Yeah.

PESCA: So that was a big, messy conference. Does the Bush administration want to have something tight where they could definitely point to something as a success?

Mr. MacLEOD: I think so. I think, also, for all of the credit that Clinton should have for having really been very interested and engaged in the peace process, frankly speaking, the way the Clinton team handled the peace process was a mess.

PESCA: Yeah.

Mr. MacLEOD: They let it get out of control. They tried to - in a panic - get things back on track with only six months to go in office. They ran out of time. It exploded all of our faces.

I think Condoleezza - keep your eye on Condoleezza Rice. This has been her baby. She has driven this thing. It's her way of doing things. I think she learned a lot from the mistakes of the Clinton team. I think that she wants to have some kind of benchmark like an Annapolis conference, so that it focuses people's minds. It gives encouragement that the U.S. is serious about guiding this process. But she's under no illusions that you can lock a couple of people in a room and that's going to solve everything.

So I think that the conference is symbolically important. It's a kind of consecration, if you will, of a year of diplomacy of Condoleezza Rice. I think she does have everyone accepting that the Americans are serious, and that there's going to be a serious effort going forward. But a lot remains to be seen how she and the Bush administration will take this. There's a lot of division still in the Bush administration itself over how to proceed, and this is not going to help things.

PESCA: If - for a news consumer coming out of the conference, you can't hope for the moon. Give me a realistic goal, a realistic achievement that can be announced coming out of the conference, so that someone who wants peace in the Middle East could look at it and say, yeah, something good was done there.

Mr. MacLEOD: I think that they will emphasize the positives. They'll emphasize what they have agreed on, which the very most important thing is they've agreed to launch negotiations on the final end of conflict of the Palestinian-Israeli dispute of 60-years standing. That's very significant. And we haven't seen any progress on that for seven years. And this is what it's all about. And there will be some nice words about we want to do this before the end of the Bush administration's term in office.

PESCA: Mm-hmm.

Mr. MacLEOD: We want to commit to violence - or to ending violence. We want to commit to positive gestures in the occupied territories. But there won't be any substance in there. It will really just be we are committing to this process, which in itself has to be recognized as an achievement.

PESCA: Scott MacLeod, Time Magazine's correspondent in Cairo. Thank you, Scott.

Mr. MacLEOD: Thanks.

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