Joe Macaron
Kuwait News Agency (kuna)
October 31, 2007 - 5:29pm

US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice travels on Thursday to the Middle East on her third mission to the region in two months amid dim hopes on resolving Palestinian-Israeli quandary ahead of upcoming Annapolis meeting. "Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas are engaged in an effort to produce a document that could serve the foundation for a serious negotiation for the establishment of a Palestinian state," said a senior State Department official, who spoke to reporters on condition of anonymity.
Both Abbas and Olmert are seeking to revive the road map, the International Quartet sponsored plan in June 2003 stating in its first phase for Israel to remove settlers and refrain from settlements in the West Bank. In return, the Palestinian Authority would crack down on militants and reform security services.
The US official affirmed that the road map is "the essential element and the pillar of our policy," noting that both sides have responsibilities in the roadmap and Israel "should halt settlement expansion." Rice needs to secure before her return to Washington on November 6 a joint draft document between Abbas and Olmert to lay the foundations of the Annapolis meeting, anticipated in the last week of November or early December followed by another international donor meeting in December.
Abbas and his negotiation team are insisting on a timetable for establishing the Palestinian state and dealing with final status issues including refugees and Jerusalem, a suggestion refused by the Israeli side.
However, the US official said that the United States is "hopeful, optimistic and determined" to achieve progress.
On Thursday, Rice will stop in Ankara for bilateral meetings with Turkish officials, before leaving to Istanbul to attend the two-day ministerial level international meeting on Iraq, a meeting attended by Iraqs neighbors, Group of eight members, and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council.
Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki and Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem are scheduled to attend Istanbul meeting.
"We are concerned about the behavior of those who oppose the Israeli Palestinian peace", noted the US official referring directly to Iran and Syria as "enemy of peace." US diplomacy with Syria is limited to the US Charge DAffaire in Damascus who hold regular meetings with Syrian officials, according to the US official.
Washington is expected to send invitations to all members of the Arab Leagues follow-up committee, which includes Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Syria and Lebanon just to name few.
Syrian President Bashar Assad said lately that Damascus would not attend Annapolis unless the occupied Golan Heights is on the agenda.
"The role of Arab states in the meeting should be to provide material, moral and political support for the Palestinian people and the Palestinian Authority and demonstrate to Israel that peace and normalization is part of this process," said the US official pointing out that the Bush administration is also concerned with Arab Israeli peace as preparations are undergoing for Annapolis.
"It is our hope, desire and aspiration that there would be significant Arab participation in the meeting," he noted while adding the Arab Peace Initiative and UN resolutions on the list of basic documents for the meeting next to the roadmap.
The US official and even Secretary Rice during her testimony last week before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs did not address the Saudi stance on the meeting despite direct questions about this particular matter.
In return, Saudi Minister of State Abdullah Alireza acknowledged that the "love affair" between the United States and Saudi Arabia "lost its momentum in the last five years because of misinformation and lack of understanding on both sides." -- He further asked during a speech at the annual conference of the Middle East Institute (MEI) here in Washington to restore "the sense of trust" and overcome "suspicion" in this relationship.
In the first quarter of 2007, Secretary Rice visited Israel and the Palestinian territories three times in January, February and March before stoping her travels to the area with Hamas crisis further evolving.
After President Bush declared on July 16 his intention to host a peace conference, she visited the region in August, September, and October.
During her stop in Israel, Rice will deliver a speech on Sunday in the annual forum organized by the Saban Center for Middle East policy affiliated with the Washington-based Brookings Institution.
Meanwhile, the member of the Palestinian Legislative Council and Secretary General of the Palestinian National Initiative Mustafa Barghouti said that 80 percent of the labor force in Gaza are now unemployed, of which 67,000 lost their job since the international embargo on the strip when Hamas took power last year.
Barghouti pointed out that when Abbas became president in 2005 there was 360 military checkpoints and now there is 574, 90 percent of them in the West Bank.
He asserted in MEI event that GDP in Israel was six times more than the Palestinian GDP in the 1990s and now it is 30 times more, and Palestinians pay income tax to the Israeli government not to the Palestinian Authority and buy agriculture products based on Israeli market price.
"We are very concerned about the humanitarian situation in Gaza," said the US official declining to comment on whether an Israeli incursion into the strip could affect the anticipated meeting few days after cutting fuel supplies to the Hamas controlled area.
Barghouti, who told KUNA he does not support the Annapolis meeting, described it as "an opportunity that can easily be wasted," arguing that the US administration is "not pressuring Israel enough to compromise." "The complete separation of the West Bank and Gaza is a serious blow to peace based on two-state solution," added Barghouti.
Brookings senior fellow in foreign policy studies Philip Gordon said that the Bush administration moved from the "grand scheme" in the Middle East towards a more pragmatic approach, almost similar to the one taken by former President Bill Clinton in dealing with the Palestinian Israeli issue.
But the US official differentiated between the Madrid Conference in 1991 and the upcoming meeting, arguing that the first one "brought the parties together to initiate a process" and the second one "is meant to support something that is already under way." Yet, State Department spokesperson Sean McCormack said last week that Rice is seeking advice and consultancy on how to deal with the Palestinian Israeli issue from prominent names such as former Presidents Jimmy Carter and Clinton, former Secretaries of State Madeleine Albright and Henry Kissinger, in addition to extensive reports drafted by current State Department historians.
Gordon argued that the Bush administration is now "paying the price of disengagement" from this conflict over the past few years and argued that there is no comprehensive peace expected in Annapolis but only laying down the "base" for a peace to be achieved perhaps in years to come.


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