Bush Aides Play Down Proposed Meeting As Arabs Press for Final-status Talks

It’s a Miss Manners nightmare: an invitation with a gift registry and a demand for pledges, but no set date — and not even a real promise of a wedding.

President Bush’s invitation to a meeting sometime in the fall to advance the Israeli-Palestinian peace process has its putative invitees, the region’s Arab states, scratching their heads. What’s clear, Arab sources say, is that they’re expected to front money for the Palestinians and recognize Israel ahead of the meeting. Unclear is what’s in it for them.

Palestinian and Arab officials say the proposed gathering should address some of the final-status issues that they see as critical to arriving at even an interim agreement: borders, Jerusalem and refugees. But in discussions with American Jewish communal leaders, Bush administration officials insist that the meeting will focus only on Palestinian institution building.

The problem with creating such low expectations is that Bush hopes for a breakthrough that would bolster Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, whose political ratings have bottomed out. To that end he wants Arab states to proffer some level of recognition of Israel ahead of the meeting, but without more of a carrot it seems unlikely that they will deliver.

“The level of the meeting right now is photo opportunities and handshakes,” Qaddura Fares, the leader of the Fatah prisoners’ association who is close to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, told JTA in an interview. “Reality dictates that such a conference should address the outline of a peace agreement. I really don’t understand what are the objectives of Israel and the United States.”

Jordan’s King Abdullah II spent Tuesday asking President Bush and U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice what they wanted out of the meeting. The king “stressed that a just and lasting solution based on international resolutions and a two-state solution will contribute to solving other problems faced by the region’s people,” his embassy said in a midday statement.

Disappointment in the United States and Israeli reluctance to discuss final-status issues were the reasons Jordan and Egypt downgraded visits by their foreign ministers to Israel this week from what was to have been historic Arab League outreach to yet more regional courtesy calls.

The confusion and gap in expectations stem from mixed signals in how Bush rolled out the idea.

In a White House setting on July 16, with Rice looking on, the president said participants would “review the progress that has been made toward building Palestinian institutions. They will look for innovative and effective ways to support further reform. And they will provide diplomatic support for the parties in their bilateral discussions and negotiations, so that we can move forward on a successful path to a Palestinian state.”

Some Arab and Palestinian officials hoped that the term “diplomatic support” indicated that some final-status issues would be addressed.

Yet literally within minutes of the address, top Bush aides were telling reporters that the meeting would narrowly focus on Palestinian institution building.

In a conference call with Jewish media, two senior Bush administration officials said the purpose of the meeting was “twofold”: review progress in institution building under the tutelage of Tony Blair, the former British prime minister and the new envoy of the diplomatic Quartet of the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations; and advance ideas for more reforms by the Palestinians now that Abbas has severed ties with Hamas.

In a conference call a day later, Elliott Abrams, Bush’s deputy national security adviser, was reassuring Jewish leaders along the same lines, emphasizing that the event was merely a “meeting” and not a “conference.”

“The word ‘meeting’ was used several times,” one of the participants told JTA.

In his speech, Bush called on Arab states to end “the fiction that Israel does not exist” and to send Cabinet-level ministers to Israel.

Such an approach would dovetail, Bush suggested, with the Arab League initiative that envisions comprehensive peace with Israel in exchange for Israel’s withdrawal to 1967 borders.

“Relaunching the Arab League initiative was a welcome first step,” he said. “Now Arab nations should build on this initiative.”

But Arab states — especially Saudi Arabia, which was behind the revivification of the Arab League initiative — want more before they commit to attending the meeting.

David Makovksy, a senior analyst with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said what would and wouldn’t be discussed in the meeting was still under consideration. The Bush administration and Israel were still open to expanding the meeting’s parameters, he said. One signal was that Rice had not even set a firm date for the meeting.

Similar flexibility could be seen on the Israeli side. Officials were telling the media this week that they were open to additional proposals arising out of the meetings this week with Egyptian and Jordanian foreign ministers.

Sources said that another round of Arab outreach could come within a month, depending on what the foreign ministers heard from Israel this week.

Olmert already has committed to confidence-building measures, including a resumption of transferring taxes to the Palestinian Authority, a release of more than 250 prisoners allied with Abbas’ Fatah Party and a reduction in roadblocks in the West Bank.

Israel and the United States are also signaling willingness to discuss an issue Palestinians believe has long been neglected: settlement expansion.

“Unauthorized outposts should be removed and settlement expansion ended,” Bush said in his speech, his strongest call in years to contain settlements.

“This was a deliberate choice of words,” David Welch, the top State Department official dealing with the Middle East, said afterward.

Makovksy said it was also significant that Olmert brought onto his team Haim Ramon, the former justice minister. Ramon has been committed for years to pulling out of most of the West Bank for a peace deal.

NEXT STORY