More details are emerging about the Middle East peace conference - expected in early June - being sponsored by the United States, the European Union (EU), Russia and the United Nations. U.S. officials say it will be at the foreign ministers' level and in Europe, but they're trying to tamp down expectations it will yield an Israeli-Palestinian peace accord.
The surprise announcement by the four parties late Thursday of the impending conference raised hopes of a possible political breakthrough. But officials here are trying to lower expectations saying it will not be a second Madrid conference, a reference to the 1991 meeting that launched the Israeli Palestinian peace process, or a repeat of the U.S. effort two years ago to forge a final-status agreement at Camp David.
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said there are many issues still to be resolved about the meeting including the venue, the precise agenda and who will be represented. He said the four sponsoring parties the so-called Middle East "Quartet" - are organizing the meeting not to conclude a final accord, but to try to build peace momentum after the modest diplomatic successes of the past days, including the end of the Israeli siege of Yasser Arafat's headquarters in Ramallah.
"It's a chance to try to advance on a strategy that involves restoration of security, urgent humanitarian assistance, and serious and accelerated negotiation towards a negotiated settlement," he said. "What we're looking to do is, as I said before: bring together ideas, create some momentum and chart out how to go forward."
In announcing plans for the meeting, Secretary of State Colin Powell said it was an effort to exploit what he said was a "window of opportunity" opened by the U.S.-brokered deal ending the month-long Ramallah stand-off.
He said "Quartet" wants to move "aggressively" forward with an integrated strategy that will offer Palestinians not only economic hope after a year and a half of conflict, but political hope for a Palestinian state alongside Israel.
In comments Friday in Washington, EU chief diplomat Javier Solana said work must start on rebuilding Palestinian infrastructure so that the Palestinian Authority can control the security situation. He said the "Quartet" agreed on the need to re-construct a Palestinian Authority that is "more transparent, more accountable and more democratic."
Secretary of State Powell had further discussion on the Middle East here Friday with Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, and the conference proposal is expected to dominate discussion next week when Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon visits the White House Tuesday and Jordan's King Abdullah does the same a day later.