In a unique exercise of citizen diplomacy, a delegation of six former American diplomats and private individuals has concluded a fact-finding tour of the Middle East, timed to precede the U.S.-sponsored Israeli-Palestinian peace conference set to begin Tuesday in Annapolis, Maryland.

Members of the group expressed their hope ? and concern ? about the Bush Administration's ability to broker an historic settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Mohamed Elshinnawi prepared this report, read by Rob Sivak.

Ambassador Robert Keeley, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs led the group. The veteran diplomat and his five colleagues visited Israel, the Palestinian territories, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. They met with high-ranking officials in each country, as well as peace activists and leaders of non-governmental organizations.

Meeting with reporters back in Washington last week, Ambassador Keeley said they found a deep desire for peace among all the parties with whom they met and widespread concerns about America's role in brokering that peace.

"We do not have a sufficient amount or quality of diplomacy going on in the Middle East," Keeley said, "therefore people there are really desperate to talk to Americans to make their case, to listen to their views, to have contacts in the hope that we may carry a message back here to our people, to our government, our legislators and so forth.

Keeley said the delegation timed its trip to gauge sentiments in the region just ahead of Tuesday's Annapolis Peace Conference. The former U.S. diplomat expressed disappointment that the Annapolis meeting appears to have no set agenda, and no firm deadline for achieving the long-sought two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Daniel Lieberman, another member of the citizen delegation, expressed similar disappointment. The editor of a monthly newsletter called Alternative Insight, Lieberman said he found Palestinians especially fearful of a potential failure in Annapolis, due to what he described as new Israeli conditions.

"Israel continues to raise the bar for Palestinian commitments, now requiring not only recognition but recognition of Israel as a 'Jewish state,"" Lieberman said. "Palestinian officials, especially the Foreign Minister, try to be optimistic about the Annapolis conference. They want a complete agenda and final talks but they are more motivated by the fear of failure than the promise of success."

Lieberman expressed concern about what he sees as significant disparities between the two major parties to the Annapolis conference. He said Palestinians really have nothing to concede in their bid to establish a viable, independent state that can live in peace with Israel.

On the other hand, he said, the Israeli government, contending with a weakened peace movement, faces little internal pressure to make concessions to the Palestinians. Mr. Lieberman said that pressure should come from United States.

Richard Bliss, another member of the private citizen's delegation, is a lawyer and corporate lobbyist in Washington. He described his first trip to the Holy Land, and his encounter with a broad range of political views in the region, as an eye-opener.

He said some of the leaders he and his colleagues met described Annapolis as an historic opportunity. But he said many also expressed doubts about the prospects for peace because some key issues ? like the status of Palestinian refugees and Jerusalem ? don't appear on the Annapolis agenda.

But Bliss said he believes the United States has the influence and resources to press both the Israelis and the Palestinians to accept a framework for a final peace settlement:

"If the parties cannot agree on a solution during the upcoming round of discussions in Annapolis," Bliss said, "the U.S should dictate a fair solution and use financial incentives and disincentives to ensure a resolution of this intractable conflict. We have many other issues of global proportions to address and cannot afford to have this one exasperate issues and conflicts we have with or in other nations including Iraq, Afghanistan and Iran."

Bliss said solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would have a positive impact on U.S relations with Arabs and Muslims throughout the region, and greatly enhance U.S. national security interests.

The citizen diplomats' trip to the Middle East was a project of the Council for the National Interest, a non-profit, non-partisan grassroots organization. According to CNI President Eugene Bird, the group seeks to encourage and promote a U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East consistent with American values and national interests.