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Diplomats Converge on Annapolis for Middle East Conference


Senior officials from nearly 50 countries and international organizations have gathered in Annapolis, Maryland near Washington for a conference aimed at launching final-status peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. The meeting, the product of months of Middle East diplomacy by the Bush administration, is intended to reopen peace talks between the two sides for the first time in seven years. VOA's David Gollust reports from the conference site at the U.S. Naval Academy.

Administration officials are cautioning in advance that the joint declaration the Israelis and Palestinians will issue at the close of the one-day meeting will not reflect progress on the core issues of the Middle East dispute, such as the status of Jerusalem and future rights of Palestinian refugees.

But they do say it will commit the sides to reopen full-scale negotiations aimed at an agreement for a two-state solution of their conflict, hopefully before the end of President Bush's term in January 2009.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice laid the groundwork for the meeting during eight trips to the Middle East this year. Largely due to those efforts, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas have already begun regular meetings on the outlines of a peace accord, the so-called "political horizon."

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack says the Annapolis conference, attended by more than 40 countries including Saudi Arabia, Syria and other major Arab countries, will amount to an international endorsement of a negotiating process that is already underway:

"They agreed that Annapolis, rather than an end in itself, would be more of a launching point for going forward, launching into final-status negotiations that would take place over some time. So it is an endorsement and a signal of support for that process and the fact that these two leaders have taken a major step in trying to bring about peace in the Middle East and peace between Israelis and Palestinians," he said.

President Bush met separately with President Abbas and Prime Minister Olmert Monday on the eve of the meeting here, and the three will officially open the conference with brief remarks.

Secretary Rice will then chair three plenary meetings during the course of the day. The first will deal with Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking, the second on institution- building for the envisaged Palestinian state, and the final one, late Tuesday, on the outlines of comprehensive peace between Israel and the Arab world.

Administration officials are stressing the presence here of all 12 member countries of the Arab League's special committee on the organization's 2002 peace overture to Israel, most of which do not have diplomatic relations with Israel.

The Arab League plan, renewed by the organization earlier this year, offers Israel Arab-wide political recognition if it reaches peace with the Palestinians and settles outstanding issues with Syria.

Syria has made its presence here dependent on its ability to raise the issue of the Golan Heights, which Israel seized from Syria in the 1967 Middle East war. U.S. officials say the Syrian delegate, Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad, is free to do this in the closing plenary on broader regional issues.

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