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The formal invitations are just now going out for the Bush administration's Middle East peace conference in Annapolis next week. The idea of the gathering is to formalize final status peace talks between the Israelis and Palestinians and get the blessings of key players, especially from the Arab world. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is trying to put together an agenda that would draw key Arab states. But it's still unclear exactly who will show up.
NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.
MICHELE KELEMEN: There were groans in the State Department's press room when spokesman Sean McCormack said he had no announcement about the conference today. He said only that the two sides aren't moving closer to agreeing on a joint statement and preparing for what comes after - that is a formal peace process.
SEAN MCCORMACK: We are confident that we will get to Annapolis in good shape. The parties will get to Annapolis in good shape, prepared to accomplish what it is that they set out for themselves.
KELEMEN: There were initially high expectations that the Israelis and Palestinians would set out their end game in Annapolis. But despite numerous trips by Secretary of State Rice, they're expected to come up with a less- ambitious joint statement. Expectations have sunk so low in fact that former Middle East envoy Dennis Ross drew some laughs when he described the upcoming talks.
DENNIS ROSS: You can't just have everybody convene in what was going to be a conference. And I'm - then I guess it became a meeting. Pretty sooner it'll be a get-together and before we're done, it's going to be a hoedown.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
KELEMEN: One of his colleagues at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, David Makovsky, said the only thing Rice has going for her is the fact that Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian authority President Mahmoud Abbas seemed to have built up trust in their private talks. But both men are seen as politically weak and unable to make major concessions.
Daniel Levy who was part of previous Israeli negotiating teams says it would be easier for Olmert to do nothing so his coalition stays with them.
DANIEL LEVY: But I think, first of all, that the Israeli prime minister does see a need in realizing a two-state solution. And secondly, he's not going to politically survive by doing nothing. He would much rather people were arguing about whether it's right to negotiate with the Palestinians or even the Syrians, or whether he's corrupt or whether he ran a bad war last year.
KELEMEN: As for Abbas, he has a political need for a peace process especially after the militant group Hamas seized control of Gaza in June. One of his former advisers, Ghaith al-Omari, who now works alongside Levy at the New American Foundation in Washington, says Abbas needs to prove that only a negotiated settlement will bring about an end to Israeli occupation.
GHAITH AL: Abbas right now is in a very adversarial zero-sum game with Hamas. And I think he realizes that's the only that he can position himself in a situation where he can put Hamas on the defensive is if he reaches a peace deal.
KELEMEN: Omari says the challenge for Secretary Rice and the Bush administration is to try to make a peace process look credible for the Palestinians.
AL: The worst thing that you can have is the high officials speaking high politics and the realities in the world keeps on getting worse.
KELEMEN: That brings the two sides right back to where they were four years ago when Palestinians promised to crack down on terrorism and Israelis promised to free settlements among other things in the so-called roadmap.
Daniel Levy says we should all expect to hear a lot of these confidence- building steps again.
LEVY: Annapolis in a way represents regression. Much of the emphasis today will be on process rather than substance and will be on sounding convincing when you commit yourselves to roadmap implementation items that have been there for four years.
KELEMEN: There are still questions as to whether the parties and the Americans sound convincing enough to draw the Saudis and other key players to Annapolis to bless this renewed peace effort and whether the Bush administration will follow up in a way it hasn't done to date.
Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.
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