Bush's fall Mideast meeting may be in trouble

JERUSALEM — As U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice prepares to return to Jerusalem this week for her fifth visit this year, new divisions between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators could undermine, or even derail, Bush administration plans for a meeting on Middle East peace this fall.

Palestinian leaders, along with Saudi Arabia, are threatening to boycott the event unless it ends with a detailed framework and specific timetable for establishing a Palestinian state.

Israeli negotiators prefer a more general statement that can be used to guide future peace. Too much detail, said Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev, could lead to failure.

"It's important to understand that, by the fall, we are not going to solve all the issues," Regev said.

Nabil Amr, a political adviser to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, on Monday said that approach would be unacceptable. "If there is nothing serious, we prefer to postpone," he said. "We will not even participate."

Over the weekend, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert sought to reassure his ruling Kadima party that he was not going to agree to a detailed agreement and favored a more general statement of principles.

Olmert's weekend declaration was sandwiched between warnings from Saudi Arabian and Palestinian leaders who threatened to skip the conference if it doesn't get into specifics.

"I think this will lead the region into a new disaster," Amr said.

Rice leaves Washington for Jerusalem on Tuesday for what is expected to be a short trip. She's due back in Washington on Friday.

The Bush administration has not set a date for the meeting or issued invitations. From the start, it's sought to temper expectations by characterizing it as a meeting instead of a summit or conference. Even so, there are high expectations and growing pressure for success.

Palestinians want Rice to pressure Israel to agree to a timetable, while the Israelis are looking for the administration and Palestinian leaders to put pressure on Saudi Arabia to offer some good-will gesture, such as a meeting with Israeli leaders.

"We understand that the Palestinian side is limited in what it can give," Regev said. "But the Arab world can offer more."

There's been no movement on fundamental Israeli-Palestinian differences over who can call Jerusalem their capital, what happens to millions of Palestinian refugees who once lived in what is now Israel, and what the exact boundaries of the two states would look like.

But Palestinians would like to see an agreement that would contain specific dates for resolving those issues. Israel is opposed to timetables unless they are linked to tangible steps taken by both sides to reduce tensions.

Ron Pundak, a central player in secret negotiations that paved the way for the 1993 Oslo Accords and establishment of the Palestinian Authority, said any agreement has to have enough specifics to propel the two sides into more serious talks.

"Hopefully it will create a joint platform for the two sides so that, whenever they enter into solid negotiations, then the principles of all the final status issues will be clear," said Pundak, who now serves as director general of the Peres Center for Peace in Jerusalem. "This is part of the problem: Of all the years between Oslo until now there was no clear picture of where we were heading."

In many ways, however, the two sides do have a clear idea of what a peace deal would look like: A fair exchange of territory to establish a new Palestinian state alongside Israel, with Jerusalem serving as capital of both nations. Palestinian refugees would not be allowed in any significant numbers to return to their homes in what is now Israel. The most contentious religious sites in Jerusalem would be overseen by an impartial administrator.

Every time the two sides have sought to resolve the fundamental issues, talks have been undone by disputes over very specific details.

The last substantial attempt came at the end of President Clinton's term when he came close to brokering a deal in 2000 at Camp David. After the diplomatic failure, Clinton tried one last time to end the conflict by presenting the two sides with a detailed agreement that addressed all the main issues.

That, too, failed to generate any new talks.

(Warren P. Strobel in Washington contributed.)