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Peace Conference Sets Stage For Formal Talks

Middle East Peace Conference Sets Stage for Formal Talks

Creation of a Palestinian state and resolution of long-standing Arab-Israeli issues are the focal points of a U.S.-sponsored international conference November 26-28. The meeting, however, will not lead to Palestinian statehood immediately nor even in the next few months, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice says in discussing expectations for the meeting.

"It's, after all, an opportunity to launch a process, not try and conclude it. That work has to be done in detailed, ongoing, continuous negotiations," Rice says.

Assistant Secretary of State David Welch announced the Annapolis, Maryland, conference November 20, saying this is a significant moment for the Israelis and Palestinians to launch serious negotiations to establish a Palestinian state and further peaceful relations.

It will be a signal opportunity to launch bilateral negotiations between the parties, Welch said during a State Department briefing.

The conference will include bilateral meetings with President Bush in Washington; a trilateral meeting with Bush, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas; and a series of meetings that include all those attending. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said 49 nations, organizations and individuals have been invited to attend the meeting, which is being held on the sprawling 162-year-old U.S. Naval Academy campus in Annapolis, about 50 miles outside Washington. (See text of statement.)

President Bush first proposed the meeting July 16 when he announced a bold initiative to strengthen what he described as the forces of moderation and peace among the Palestinian people and the building of a Palestinian state. Bush offered a financial commitment of $270 million in U.S. assistance to the Palestinian Authority for building critical infrastructure. Bush also announced another $228 million in lending through the Overseas Private Investment Corporation to spur economic development and growth.

Bush said the United States was strengthening its political and diplomatic commitment by supporting a two-state solution -- Israel and a Palestinian state living side by side in peace.

Finally, Bush called for talks. "These negotiations must resolve difficult questions and uphold clear principles. They must ensure that Israel is secure. They must guarantee that a Palestinian state is viable and contiguous," he said. (See related article and text.)

For the United States, the meeting features two major components -- to support the peace process and to rally international support for the Palestinians and Israelis.

The United States is engaged along three diplomatic tracks:

• Supporting progress in political talks between Abbas and Olmert;
• Assisting with Palestinian institutional and economic reform and development essential to statehood; and
• Encouraging tangible improvements on the ground with commitments developed in the Middle East road map for peace.

For the Israelis and Palestinians, there are four substantial issues to resolve -- the borders of a Palestinian state, the status of Jerusalem, the removal of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and the fate of Palestinian refugees who left before and during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war.

Israeli and Palestinian officials clearly acknowledge that they want to resolve these issues soon.

"Annapolis will be the jumping-off point for continued serious and in-depth negotiations which will not avoid any issue or ignore any division which has clouded our relations with the Palestinian people for many years," Olmert said at the Brookings Institution's Saban Center for Middle East Policy November 4.

"That is why -- Annapolis. Why now? Because it is time."

Similarly, Palestinian President Abbas said recently that "the American, Israeli and Palestinian sides are all insistent that we reach an end before the end of President Bush's term in office, and that is what we wish."

"We are going to do everything we can to help the parties as they try to come to an understanding on a wide variety of outstanding issues that must be resolved if there is to be peace and a Palestinian state," Rice says. "Failure isn't an option, but not acting is failure in these circumstances."

Rice also acknowledges that the United States has not been working alone, but has been working with the Quartet -- which comprises the United Nations, the European Union, Russia and the United States -- as well as responsible Arab states that long have been committed to the road map and to a two-state solution.

"I feel that we are getting from all of those states very clear signs that they want this process to succeed, that they are prepared to try and help this process to succeed," she said.


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