debkafile Exclusive: Annapolis conference may be delayed if impasse over Lebanese presidential election persists

debkafile‘s Washington and Middle East sources report that the team Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert sent to Washington, led by his chief of staff Yoram Turbovitch, to prepare the Middle East conference, arrived home Friday empty-handed. They found the entire venture still up in the air. No agenda has been compiled – Israel wants it to focus on its dispute with the Palestinians rather than the Israel-Arab conflict – and certainly not the Golan’s return to Syria. No timetable had been set for the conference, or even a date for its opening.
All the Israeli officials were told was that President Bush planned to invite the delegations to a White House reception on the eve of the conference. But even that is in doubt, since a number of Arab governments are only sending low-ranking officials or their ambassadors. Therefore, the entire venture is in doubt, as is the Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s scheduled visit to the region next week.
Much depends on the outcome of Lebanon’s parliamentary vote for a new president, scheduled finally for Wed. Nov. 21, which is riveting the attention of Saudi Arabia, Syria, Iran and Egypt to a much greater extent than the Annapolis conference. Lebanese factions are deadlocked in their choice of president, who must come from the Maronite Christian community, despite the strenuous efforts this week of UN Secretary Ban Ki-moon, French foreign minister Bernard Kouchner and Washington to select an agreed candidate.
The main obstacle is Iran, acting through the Shiite Hizballah, which is blocking any arrangement that does not assure Hizballah and its armed militia’s centrality in Lebanon’s power structure.
If Rice’s journey to the region does take place, she risks finding herself in the wrong place at the wrong time. Should a critical situation unfold in Beirut, the Annapolis conference would be nothing but a sideshow for the Arab world. In any case, the US Secretary has little to do in Jerusalem and Ramallah but regurgitate all the points dividing Israel and the Palestinians. As things stand now, the probability of her arriving in the Middle East and, indeed, the conference taking off at all, is diminishing.

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