Bush calls for conference with Israel, Palestinians, neighbors

McClatchy NewspapersJuly 16, 2007 

WASHINGTON — Seeking to revive Middle East peace talks, President Bush called Monday for an international peace conference with Israel, Palestinians and some of Israel's Arab neighbors next fall.

In announcing the meeting, Bush once again stressed that the Palestinian government must help stop attacks against Israel, arrest terrorists and dismantle their infrastructure. The president also had an unusually blunt message for Israel, saying its future lies in developing areas such as Negev and Galilee, "not in continuing occupation of the West Bank."

Bush and his aides left vague who would attend the conference. Backing the idea is a policy switch for the Bush administration, which has been cool to such large diplomatic gatherings in the past.

The president said Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice would preside over the conference with representatives of Israel, the Palestinian Authority and those Arab nations that recognize Israel's right to exist, reject violence and support the creation of an independent Palestinian state.

"They will look for innovative and effective ways to support further reform," Bush said. "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."

The ground rules for attendance would appear to exclude Syria, which joined in the original Middle East peace conference in Madrid, Spain, in 1991, after the first Persian Gulf War.

Other key question marks are regional powerhouse Saudi Arabia, which has no diplomatic ties with Israel but is the author of a recently revived Arab peace initiative, and the U.S.-backed government of Iraq.

Bush originally had been scheduled to deliver a major Middle East address around June 24, the fifth anniversary of a speech in the White House Rose Garden in which he first called for an independent Palestinian state.

But that plan was derailed when the Islamist group Hamas seized control of the Gaza Strip in a swift military campaign that vanquished Fatah forces loyal to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

The move left Palestinians split, with Hamas controlling Gaza and Fatah entrenched in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. Bush's strategy now centers on bolstering Abbas and convincing Israel and other nations to do likewise.

Bush said Monday that the U.S. government would provide the Palestinians with $190 million in aid this year.

Most of that money had been committed previously. But Bush announced that the United States would contribute $80 million directly to the Palestinian Authority to help it overhaul its security forces. In the past, such aid usually has been channeled through third parties.

Bruce Riedel, a former CIA and White House official, noted that Bush's speech came as the United States is on the defensive across the Middle East, with the war in Iraq going poorly and Iran showing increased confidence.

"The administration realizes — I hope it realizes — that neglecting the Israeli-Palestinian problem has been a costly mistake," said Riedel, who's at the Brookings Institution's Saban Center for Middle East Policy.

Having pledged involvement in peacemaking before, "The president is going to have a hard time convincing people this time he's for real," Riedel said.

Representatives for Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert — who met Monday — hailed Bush's action.

Miri Eisin, a spokeswoman for Olmert, said Bush's move "adds momentum" to talks that Olmert and Abbas are conducting. Nabil Amr, an Abbas adviser, said Bush's comments opened "a new door that would lead to reviving peacemaking."

U.S. officials released no details about when or where the proposed international conference would take place or who would attend.

Assistant Secretary of State David Welch said final decisions on the guest list hadn't been made.

"We wouldn't be launching ourselves on this enterprise if we didn't feel some confidence that there is a willingness in the region to embrace the path to peace," Welch said.

"We believe this is the moment for everybody to push the `Go' button," he said, referring to international support for Abbas.

Rice is scheduled to visit the Middle East later this month and meet with Olmert and Abbas.

But while Bush is betting all his chips on the Palestinian leader, skeptics note that Abbas' political room for maneuvering remains limited, and that Hamas retains support in the West Bank as well as Gaza.

In his speech, Bush stressed that both the Israelis and the Palestinians have work to do to get back to peace negotiations.

Bush said the Palestinians must do more to rein in terrorists and eliminate government corruption and Olmert must continue to release Palestinian tax revenues to the government. He also urged Olmert to remove unauthorized Jewish settlements in the West Bank and end Israeli expansion there.

"At the same time, Israelis should find other practical ways to reduce their footprint without reducing their security, so they can help President Abbas improve humanitarian and economic conditions," Bush said.

McClatchy Newspapers 2007

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