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Middle East Peace Conference Convenes Next Week

The United States has invited nearly 50 countries and international organizations to a Middle East peace conference next week designed as a springboard for Israel and the Palestinians to begin negotiations toward a solution of their conflict. As VOA correspondent Meredith Buel reports from Washington, participation of Arab states in the meeting, to be held at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, is considered a key to its success.

It has been seven years since major negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians collapsed in a wave of violence during the second intifada, or uprising against Israeli occupation.

Now the United States has invited Palestinian and Israeli leaders along with foreign ministers from around the world for what analysts say is a high-stakes gamble to conclude a peace settlement within a year.

All parties consider Arab support for the peace process to be crucial, and countries that do not recognize Israel, such as Syria and Saudi Arabia, have been invited to attend.

This would give added support to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who along with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is seeking a deal creating an independent state for the Palestinians and a long-term peace for Israelis.

The militant group Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip and rejects negotiations with Israel, has not been invited.

Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, David Welch, calls the conference an opportunity to initiate talks aimed at a wide-ranging peace plan for the Middle East.

"This is a serious effort," said David Welch. "It is devoted to a serious purpose, that is the launch of negotiations toward a two-state solution and that has long been a request from the Arab countries and now they will see it being met. It is, in our judgment, an appropriate time for them to play a role in exercising their responsibility to lead toward comprehensive peace in the Middle East, too."

Both President Abbas and Prime Minister Olmert appointed negotiators to write a joint document of principles for a future peace deal to be presented in Annapolis.

The negotiators, however, have not been able to agree on a detailed text and a more general joint statement is expected to be released at the conference.

David Makovsky is the director of the Project on the Middle East Peace Process at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Makovsky says Bush administration officials have worked hard to lower expectations about the outcome of the meeting.

"Basically the idea that some had and maybe you saw a lot in the media, was that Annapolis would be the scene of a diplomatic breakthrough and would mark a culmination," said David Makovsky. "When in fact, the way it is now, it is clear Annapolis is more a beginning, a launch and will not have a grand statement of a diplomatic breakthrough."

For years Dennis Ross was the chief U.S. negotiator during previous efforts to broker a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.

Ross says it is important that there are firm plans in place to begin tough negotiations on final status issues such as borders, refugees and the future of Jerusalem immediately following the Annapolis conference.

"You have got to show this was not, in fact, just a photo-op," said Dennis Ross. "You have to show it was not just stagecraft, where you stage an event. There has to be statecraft where you have follow-on objectives and you have follow-on means designed to pursue what you are doing."

In addition to moves on the diplomatic front, the Bush administration is proposing a substantial boost in the amount of financial aid to the Palestinian Authority.

The president has asked Congress to approve an increase of more than $400 million in additional aid, on top of the $77 million requested earlier this year.

David Makovsky of The Washington Institute says Arab countries attending the Annapolis meeting should be asked to pledge significant funds for the Palestinians.

"I think it is obscene that the Arab states have had tripling of oil revenues since 2002," he said. "I think the number you usually hear is $700 billion of profit and yet they have done nothing for the Palestinians. At a time when you want to think that the moderates can deliver, I think you are in a very good position to insist that the Gulf States, not just the Saudis, do more."

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will run the Annapolis conference and President Bush is expected to deliver a major address in Annapolis and meet with the participants.

Former negotiator Dennis Ross says he does not expect Mr. Bush to be as involved as former President Bill Clinton, who once presented his own plan for a peace accord.

"This president will never be like Clinton," he said. "He will never know the issues, he will never throw himself into it and so it is up to her [Secretary Rice]. If she wants to do this she has to take on that kind of a burden. I think she has the backing of the president. I do not think he has the kind of interest in this issue. His preoccupation is elsewhere. It is with Iraq. It is not on this issue."

Both Israel and the Palestinians say the U.S.-backed road map is still the framework for peacemaking.

The road map was first launched in 2003, and is sponsored by the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations. It was never implemented because the Palestinians and Israel failed to meet even the initial requirements of the plan.