White House Sends Invites for Mideast Peace Talks in Maryland Next Week

The United States has told dozens of nations and organizations to expect invitations to a U.S.-sponsored conference launching new Mideast peace talks, the State Department said Tuesday.

A week before the session is expected to begin in Annapolis, Md., the United States has not laid out an agenda, or publicly said when the meeting will take place and exactly who will attend. Many of those details were expected later Tuesday.

The session is meant to commit Israel and the Palestinians to formal peace talks that carry international backing. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Tuesday he hopes a peace deal could be completed by the end of next year.

For now, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said U.S. diplomats have issued the equivalent of a "save the date" notice to a long list of invitees.

"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.

President Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday exchanged views by phone regarding the practical aspects of preparations for an international meeting on the Middle East peace talks in Annapolis.

"As a follow-up to their telephone conversation on October 22, Putin and Bush continued discussing issues on the strategic agenda," the Kremlin press service said in a statement.

The State Department planned to hold off on a formal announcement of the session until the invitations go out. That is likely Tuesday, after U.S. ambassadors around the globe receive a detailed list of instructions for issuing the invitations. The script runs more than 10 pages.

Approximately 40 nations and organizations seem sure 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 the 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 launched 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 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.

Mubarak, whose nation is one of only two Arab neighbors that have diplomatic relations with Israel, said the Annapolis conference would be a beginning for serious negotiations.

"The negotiation will tackle all problems and topics to achieve our vision of two states," he predicted.

The White House has said President Bush will attend at least part of the event chaired by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who also will host a pre-conference dinner at the State Department on Nov. 26, according to U.S. officials who spoke on condition of anonymity ahead of the announcement.

A majority of Palestinians want their president to negotiate a peace deal with Israel, but don't believe there will be progress at next week's session, a poll showed.

There has been a slight drop in skepticism about the conference in the past two months, according to a survey by the independent polling company Near East Consulting.

In November, 57 percent of 1,200 respondents said they don't believe the conference will lead to progress in Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking, compared with 61 percent in September, according to the poll, which had an error margin of 3 percentage points.

Seventy-one percent said they want Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to attend the conference, down 5 percentage points from an October poll.