Expectations low for U.S.-Mideast peace talks

JERUSALEM — It might be called the Incredible Shrinking Middle East Peace Summit.

After months of U.S. diplomacy and Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, expectations for peace talks next week in Annapolis, Md., have fallen so low that everyone is already focusing on The Day After.

What once was seen as a chance to build an anti-Iranian coalition of moderate Arab nations by jump-starting Israeli-Palestinian peace talks now is viewed as little more than a launching pad for future negotiations:

_ Days before the expected one-day gathering, tentatively scheduled for Nov. 27, there's no clear agenda and no guarantee that some key players such as Saudi Arabia will take part.

_ Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is facing a serious challenge from the militant Islamic group Hamas, which opposes negotiations with Israel.

_ Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert faces opposition from his own hard-liners, who are against making concessions to the Palestinians.

_ President Bush is unpopular at home, distrusted in the Arab world and has even less political cachet because of the war in Iraq.

_ Moderate Arab nations, skeptical that the talks will produce lasting progress, are reluctant to stick their necks out to support them.

Israeli and Palestinian negotiators have yet to agree even on the outlines of a statement that's meant to be the central pillar and main achievement of the talks.

A senior Middle Eastern diplomat in Washington, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity to avoid damaging relations with the U.S., expressed deep frustration with the Bush administration. He said that calls by Arab diplomats to the State Department and U.S. embassies had elicited no information on the conference, including which countries would attend and what the final statement would say.

As time runs out, the main players are considering the possibility that the meeting will be little more than a venue for picture-taking and speechifying, and that they'll emerge with nothing more than a general agreement on the direction of more talks.

"Expectations have finally come into line with reality," said Aaron David Miller of the Woodrow Wilson International Center, a nonpartisan Washington public-policy institute, and the author of the forthcoming "The Much Too Promised Land: America's Search for Arab-Israeli Peace."

As a key negotiator for President Clinton during the Camp David peace talks in 2000, which ended in collapse, Miller knows the risks of pushing the two sides into a deal when they aren't ready.

For that reason, he praised Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice for tempering expectations and not trying to force Olmert and Abbas into a corner.

Outwardly, the closest model for Annapolis now is the 1991 Madrid Conference, which President Bush's father convened in the wake of the Persian Gulf War. While the accomplishments at Madrid were modest, they created momentum that culminated in the historic signing two years later of the Oslo Accords, which paved the way for establishing the Palestinian Authority.

But Madrid came about as a result of intense engagement by President George H.W. Bush, whose administration reached out to adversaries such as Syria. And it happened at the height of his post-Gulf War popularity.

In eight trips to Jerusalem this year, Rice prodded Olmert and Abbas into regular talks that have helped the two weak leaders transcend their initial frosty relationship and develop a tentative sense of mutual respect.

In modest steps, they've tried to demonstrate their willingness and ability to implement a historic peace deal.

Olmert has released hundreds of low-level Palestinian prisoners and granted amnesty to several dozen wanted Palestinian militants, while Abbas and the Palestinian Authority have dispatched hundreds of new soldiers to the restive West Bank city of Nablus as part of a U.S.-backed security plan.

Olmert also has tried to prepare Israelis psychologically for concessions. He and his top aides have suggested that Israel might give up some Arab neighborhoods in Jerusalem to the Palestinians.

Beyond that, though, there's been no significant progress. The Palestinians have had to abandon their demand that the two sides agree to a timeline for more talks. And Olmert has made an eleventh-hour demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state before talks proceed after Annapolis.

On the broader Middle East front, Rice has failed to persuade traditional U.S. allies such as Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt to join together in a new coalition that's meant to balance the influence of Iran. And the administration is still sending mixed signals about whether it's willing to support possible Israeli peace talks with Syria.

Expectations are growing that after Annapolis, Olmert and Abbas will accelerate their talks and press ahead with concrete steps meant to build trust in hopes of tackling the most difficult issues on the agenda, such as control of Jerusalem and the future of Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

Even if Annapolis ends with some solid guideposts, a myriad of risks could derail the process quickly without intense U.S. involvement.

"You need the Americans to be hands-on, otherwise every party will take it in their own direction and it's going to fall apart in no time," said Uri Dromi, the director of international outreach at the Israel Democracy Institute, an independent research center.

After Annapolis, Israel is likely to stage a prolonged military operation in the Gaza Strip to try to curb the near-daily volleys of crude missiles fired at southern Israeli cities. That could lead Palestinian negotiators to break off talks in protest, at least temporarily.

Continued Hamas control of Gaza remains a daunting challenge.

"Gaza is the wild card," said Mark Regev, a spokesman for Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni. "Gaza can destroy all the positive momentum."

But the biggest challenge is time. The key players all understand that any deal would have to be worked out before the Bush administration leaves office in 14 months or less, with the 2008 American elections already gathering steam. It may be impossible for the U.S. to push things along quickly enough to meet that deadline, however.

"The amount of work that is involved in achieving anything between now and the end of next year is galactic in character," said Miller, of the Woodrow Wilson center.

(Warren P. Strobel and Jonathan S. Landay contributed to this article from Washington.)