WASHINGTON – It has eluded every U.S. administration for the past six decades, but in the twilight of his White House tenure, President Bush hopes to succeed where his predecessors have failed and forge Israeli-Palestinian peace.
The odds are long, but Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Wednesday the administration, along with Israeli and Palestinian leaders, is committed to achieving a settlement before Bush leaves office.
“The parties have said they are going to make efforts to conclude it in this president’s term, and it’s no secret that means about a year,” Rice said. “That’s what we’ll try and do. Nobody can guarantee that – all you can do is make your best effort.”
But she warned that the task will be difficult and fraught with entrenched positions on both sides that have destroyed all previous efforts, most recently President Clinton’s in 2000, to bring an end to one of the world’s longest and most intractable conflicts.
Still, Bush’s desire is strong, and he laid out the endgame of an independent Palestine early in his presidency, a change in approach from the past, she argued.
“In a situation in which there have been many, many attempts to solve this conflict, and they haven’t worked, perhaps you have to go back and look at some of the fundamentals, which is really what this president did,” Rice said.
Speaking a day after the administration issued invitations for next week’s Mideast peace conference at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., Rice argued the meeting could already be considered a success because Israeli and Palestinian leaders will agree to open peace talks with an eye toward completing them and creating a Palestinian state by January 2009.
Talks that she said she hopes will be continuous and serious would start immediately. It would be the first such direct negotiations between the two sides in seven years.
“The success of this meeting is really in the launch of negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians for the establishment of a Palestinian state,” she said.
The United States is hosting Israeli and Palestinian leaders next week for talks in Washington and Annapolis at which senior officials and diplomats from 46 other nations and groups are also expected to attend and endorse the resumption of direct negotiations.
The Bush administration believes the Annapolis session will be an important launch pad for talks to settle the conflict over land, nationhood and rights that underlies Israel’s other problems with Arab neighbors.
Bush called Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Wednesday to discuss the conference, and he also phoned Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak about the session, the White House said.
Egypt is one of only two Arab states that have negotiated peace deals with Israel, and the country is serving as something of a go-between for other Arab nations in the run-up to Annapolis. Egypt has pledged to attend the session.
The two sides are expected to present a joint statement on resuming peace talks at Annapolis, yet less than a week before their delegations are to arrive in the United States, the document exists only in vague form.
Rice said the document’s focus changed during weeks of preliminary meetings between Olmert and Abbas, and ultimately became less important as the two leaders decided between them that they wanted to begin full negotiations.