WASHINGTON – The U.S. State Department announced that the U.S. will host a Middle East conference next week as a prelude to talks that President George W. Bush hopes will put the Israeli-Palestinian peace process back on track.
The announcement Tuesday by spokesman Sean McCormack came after Israel and the Palestinians confirmed having received invitations to the meeting, which is intended to launch their first serious peace negotiations in more than seven years.
McCormack told reporters that 49 countries, institutions and individuals, including select Arab states and other key nations with a stake in the Mideast peace process were invited to the meeting beginning Nov. 27. The session is expected to cover three days, with meetings in both Washington and the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. It is meant to commit Israel and the Palestinians to formal peace talks that carry international backing.
Bush will deliver a speech to open the meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will be the official host, said David Welch, assistant secretary of state for near-Eastern affairs. Bush also will speak at a dinner with participants on the night before the parties head to Maryland.
"It will be a signal opportunity to launch the bilateral negotiations between the parties," Welch told reporters at the State Department, adding that the ultimate goal is greater security for the Jewish state of Israel and creation of a Palestinian state one day.
Welch said the U.S. is "hopeful" for a positive response to the invitations that U.S. sent out on Tuesday, but he would not elaborate on which key Arab nations may have accepted, including major players such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Tuesday he hopes a peace deal could be completed by the end of next year.
Earlier Tuesday, Bush began reaching out to key nations that could be spoilers for the U.S.-sponsored conference.
Bush discussed the meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in a telephone call and also called Saudi King Abdullah. Russia and particularly Saudi Arabia would be key participants, and their absence would all but doom chances for the session to be considered a serious run at peace.
It was not clear whether the Russian or Saudi leaders pledged to their nations would attend.
Bush, Abbas and Olmert would represent their people directly, but all other nations are expected to be represented by foreign ministers.
U.S. diplomats have issued the equivalent of a "save-the-date" notice to a long list of other invitees, McCormack said.
"We have had informal contacts with many of the invitees, so they are aware of the dates and many of the logistical arrangements so they can make their plans," McCormack said. Those contacts over recent days were notice "that an invitation will be forthcoming in the not-too-distant future," he said.
The White House has said Bush will attend at least part of the event chaired by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
The State Department planned to hold off on a formal announcement of the session until the invitations go out. U.S. ambassadors around the globe have received a detailed list of instructions for issuing the invitations. The script runs more than 10 pages.
About 40 nations and organizations seem certain to receive invitations, and the list could be longer. The nations include Arab states with a stake in improving the Palestinians' lot, nations with a history or interest in Mideast peacemaking, plus organizations such as the United Nations, International Monetary Fund and World Bank.
Olmert appealed to reluctant Arab nations to support the upcoming conference.
After meetings in Egypt with Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak, Olmert said negotiations opened at next week's gathering would address all issues of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and take into account a Saudi-sponsored Arab peace initiative — two key concerns of Arab states.
Olmert's comments were aimed at assuring Arab nations that even if the conference does not do so, the ensuing negotiations will. It is not clear where or when those later bargaining sessions will occur. A first step is likely to be a pledging session for the Palestinians scheduled for Dec. 17 in Paris.
Arab countries have been reluctant to commit to the conference unless it tackles the tough issues that have in past talks blocked establishment of a Palestinian state.
Israel has shown deep reluctance to address the main core issues: final borders, the status of Jerusalem, and the right of return of Palestinian refugees.