- The Washington Times - Friday, April 25, 2008

Bickering over participants has derailed a planned Middle East summit next month between the United States, Israel, Egypt, Jordan and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas — the second major multilateral meeting to unravel this week.

A five-way summit, proposed for mid-May in Egypt, is bogged down in disputes over whether Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert would attend, as host Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak had urged. But others, including the United States, thought that converting a series of bilateral meetings — which initially did not include Israel — into a full-blown multiparty summit would inflate expectations about concrete results.

“As of now, all talks are in flux,” a senior Arab diplomatic official said yesterday. “The whole point of these things is to get people together so that they can make the difficult decisions, but to do that, you need some thorough preparation, and that doesn’t seem to be in place at this point.”

The White House would not comment specifically on the planned talks. Spokeswoman Dana Perino said Mr. Abbas and President Bush will still meet in Egypt, “but it’s looking like a series of bilats, not a multilateral discussion.”

Mr. Mubarak is growing frustrated with his attempts to organize multilateral talks in Sharm el Sheik, which Mr. Bush plans to attend after visiting Jerusalem on Israel’s 60th anniversary and Saudi Arabia.

Without the presence of Mr. Olmert, who has been invited to attend but who has not yet accepted, the talks “would be pointless,” Mubarak spokesman Suleiman Awwad said this week.

The collapse of the Egyptian talks is the second major multilateral meeting to break down. Mr. Abbas this week expressed reluctance to attend a conference in Moscow in June, saying he expected little to be accomplished, Western and Palestinian diplomats said yesterday.

“President Abbas is not that keen on a conference in Moscow anymore,” one Arab official said. “It’s not clear what exactly its focus would be and what results it will produce.” Israeli officials also expressed doubts about attending the Moscow talks.

Mr. Bush has intensified his efforts to broker a peace deal between the Palestinians and Israelis, hosting Jordan’s King Abdullah II at the White House on Wednesday and Mr. Abbas yesterday.

After his meeting with the Palestinian leader, Mr. Bush said in the Oval Office that he remains optimistic that the two sides in the Mideast peace process can agree on the definition of a Palestinian state by the end of his term in 10 months.

“The Palestinian state is a high priority for me and my administration,” he said. Seated beside the president, Mr. Abbas said, “I believe very strongly that time is of the essence.” Neither leader mentioned future multilateral meetings, and neither mentioned the contentious issue of Israeli settlements in occupied Palestinian territory.

Mr. Abbas has been weakened by Hamas’ takeover of the Gaza Strip in June and has been ineffectual in delivering a cease-fire so peace talks can continue. His negotiations with Mr. Olmert have yielded little progress since a U.S.-sponsored conference in Annapolis in November, where the two leaders pledged to try to reach a peace agreement by the end of this year.

Top Cabinet officials have blanketed the Middle East in the past several months after Mr. Bush’s visit to the region in January failed to produce results. But Israel has embarrassed the U.S. officials — including Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice — by announcing new settlements in the occupied West Bank, a key sticking point between the two sides.


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