Rice Expands Washington Peace Conference Base, Dilutes Results

The Palestinian Authority chairman Mahmoud Abbas has said to everyone in sight that he will not attend the Washington peace conference the White House is promoting for November unless he is assured of progress on core issues and on Palestinian statehood. Otherwise, he says, the event is futile.
He tried explaining this to US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice when she visited Ramallah last week. He told her that no consensus had ensued from his meetings with Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert on a single issue; he would therefore absent himself from the conference. But, he said, she “misunderstood” his meaning.
Our Middle East and Washington sources disclose that, to make sure the US government understood that no Palestinian official, including prime minister Salam Fayyad, would be there, Abbas sent two secret emissaries to Washington and Paris. They reported that there is not the slightest chance of a prior Israeli-Palestinian consensus on any core issue in the next two months. Therefore, the Palestinian seats at the conference would be vacant.
Abbas insisted in the message to the two governments that he was not playing games to extort last-minute concessions from Israel. He simply wanted more time for the serious negotiating track he had opened up with Olmert to continue uninterrupted.
The Israeli prime minister is fully aware of Abbas’ position, but has made no comment.
He too is not keen on the conference, but is leaving it to the Palestinians to upset the Bush administration’s the applecart.
It also suits Olmert’ image at home to look tough on security (the Sept. 6 air attack over Syria), while pleasing the doves by appearing to work toward forging a historic breakthrough in the conflict with the Palestinians. From time to time, one issue or another is officially said to be referred to joint Israel-Palestinian experts committees after the two leaders reached agreement in principle. In fact, according to debkafile‘s defense sources, no progress has been attained on any issue at all.
Olmert’s initiative to free 91 jailed members of Abbas’ Fatah group to mark the Muslim feast of Eid al Fitr, approved by the government Sunday Sept. 23, was not aimed at changing the Palestinian leader’s mind about attending the Washington meeting, but presenting himself to the Americans and Israeli doves as amenable to pacific concessions to the Palestinians.
Meanwhile, Knesset opposition members will hold a special session Monday to air their objections to releasing another batch of Palestinian terrorists, knowing they will go straight back to their violent ways – without demanding anything in return. About half the 91 prisoners on the list must be pardoned by President Shimon Peres before they can walk free and the entire list was posted on the Prisons Authority’s Web site as required by law in case any Israeli citizen wishes to press charges against them.
This process takes up time and attention. The US secretary of state, who understood Abbas very well, is meanwhile struggling to stand the Washington peace conference on its feet.
After turning a deaf ear not only to Abbas, but also to Saudi Arabia and Egypt, both of which prefer to stay away, she has come up with a fresh tactic. Instead of the smallish Israel-Arab forum originally planned, which she too realizes has nowhere to go, the secretary is trying to jazz the event up with momentum for a big international summit.
Now she is talking about inviting the entire Arab League, which would include Syria, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and the Maghreb nations, as well as a couple of Muslim rulers.
The Palestinians, the Saudis, the Egyptians and the Israelis could then hardly stay away – especially when she has not attached any strings, replacing them with “hopes.”
Invitees like Syria were not asked to recognize Israel or renounce their sponsorship of terror but rebuked. “We hope,” she said, “that those who come are really committed to helping the Israelis and Palestinians find a way through – and that means renouncing violence, it means working for a peaceful solution.”
She spoke Sunday after the Middle East Quartet meeting in New York issued a statement of support for the Washington conference.
The US secretary knows perfectly well that the larger the forum, the less the chance of consensus on action or substantive issues. But even resolutions that are mere generalities, she believes, can be sold to the Arab and Muslim world as a demonstration that the Bush administration is making good on its pledge to bring about progress for a solution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
Even so, Abbas is standing by his refusal to attend, and without him, there is no conference. US officials told debkafile that the Palestinian leader believes he can get away with his rebuff without paying a price. They say Washington can hardly cut off aid to his Ramallah-based government on the West Bank, for fear of strengthening Hamas and the hard-line Palestinian groups backed by Damascus and Iran.
Embarrassingly, Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak said Sunday night he had no notion of the conference agenda. He said the French foreign minister Bernard Kouchner had also shrugged when asked if he knew anything about it. Without an agreed agenda, said Mubarak, there was no point in calling the conference because it was preprogrammed for failure.

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