Politics & Government

Long-awaited peace conference set for Nov. 27

WASHINGTON — The U.S. State Department will announce on Tuesday that it will host an international meeting on Middle East peace at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., on Nov. 27, with roughly 40 countries and entities expected to attend, U.S. officials said Monday.

The long-awaited announcement will clarify in part the details of a conclave whose purposes and goals have been unclear, despite weeks of preparations. The meeting was intended to restart negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, which have been dormant for most of President Bush's tenure.

But with only a week to go before the conference opens, fundamental questions remain. They include details of a proposed joint declaration that Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas have yet to agree on.

Olmert and Abbas met again Monday to negotiate the joint declaration, but made little progress, according to reports from Jerusalem. Both men, however, are under pressure from more hard-line factions, and neither is in a strong position to offer compromises on key issues such as the future of Jerusalem, Israel's borders or the fate of Jewish settlements in the Palestinian territories.

Nevertheless, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said he was confident that a document would be ready in time for the Annapolis meeting.

Also undecided is the level at which Arab countries that don't have relations with Israel will participate. The meeting is supposed to take place at the level of foreign minister, and if Arab states such as Saudi Arabia opt to send lower-level envoys, such as their ambassador in Washington, it would be a major snub to the White House and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

However, Bush's standing in the Arab world is low, and with oil prices at record highs, America's leverage over nations such as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait is limited.

Foreign ministers of the Arab League are due to meet Thursday and Friday to decide who to send and what position to take.

"I'm fully confident that when the formal invitations are issued that we will receive a positive response and that the foreign ministers or whomever countries decide to designate as their representative will" attend, McCormack said.

Roughly 40 nations and international entities will be invited to the meeting, including members of the G-8 group of industrialized economies, and the diplomatic "Quartet," which includes Russia, the European Union and the United Nations, as well as the United States.

Follow-up meetings are planned in Washington the next day, the officials said.

(Hannah Allam in Cairo contributed to this report.)