The most ambitious effort in almost a decade to secure peace in the Middle East begins in Annapolis on Tuesday with Israel and the Palestinians still balking at the terms of a joint declaration on where their negotiations are heading.
As President George W. Bush held separate talks at the White House with Ehud Olmert, Israeli prime minister, and Mahmoud Abbas, Palestinian Authority president, Condoleezza Rice, US secretary of state, made a final effort to secure agreement on a statement.
With more than 40 countries and organisations represented at Annapolis, the Bush administration is determined that the name of the Maryland resort should not become another byword for failed initiatives to resolve the 60-year-old conflict.
With expectations already low, the main delegations on Monday played down the importance of coming up with a declaration they have struggled for months to draft and said the significance of the meeting was in the fact it was taking place.
“It would be nice if there was a joint statement. It was to have been on how we proceed,” said Mark Regev, Israeli foreign ministry spokesman. “But it is not essential.”
Palestinian officials said agreement was still possible on what they described as a severely watered-down draft, but that it would have little substance compared with an agreement on principles that Mr Abbas originally sought. The Palestinian leader wanted to include the most contentious issues, such as borders and refugees, along with a timetable for implementation.
With the US administration determined to secure a tangible result from Tuesday’s one-day meeting, Ms Rice chaired hours of intensive but ultimately fruitless talks on Sunday with Ahmed Qurei, Palestinian negotiator, and Tzipi Livni, Israeli foreign minister.
She resumed her efforts on Monday with less than 24 hours left before Mr Bush’s opening speech to the conference at which he is expected to pledge that Israeli-Palestinian peace will be the central foreign policy goal of his remaining year in office.
Sean McCormack, state department spokesman, said on Monday that Washington hoped for agreement at least on a “work plan” on how to proceed after the conference.
However, referring to the attendance of almost 50 delegations at the conference, he said: “I think the fact of their presence there speaks more loudly than any declaration or document could.”
A decision by Syria to attend, albeit at deputy foreign minister level, is a small diplomatic coup for Washington. Damascus was persuaded to participate by the prospect of being allowed to raise the issue of the Golan Heights.
The decision puts Syria potentially at odds with its ally Iran whose supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, on Monday dismissed the Annapolis conference, in advance, as a failure.
Syria’s attendance also undermines Hamas which, from its Gaza stronghold, denounced the gathering as irrelevant to the Palestinian people.
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