The State Department announced Tuesday that the United States will host a Middle East conference at Annapolis, Md., on Nov. 27, less than a week before the talks that President Bush hopes will put the Israeli-Palestinian peace process back on track.
The announcement by spokesman Sean McCormack came after Israel and the Palestinians confirmed having received invitations to the event, 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.
Initial invitations were sent to Israel and the Palestinians on Tuesday, and the United States has told dozens of other nations and organizations to expect invitations soon.
The United States has not laid out an agenda and up until Tuesday, hadn’t publicly said when the meeting will take place and exactly who will attend. An aide to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said the gathering will start next Monday with a dinner in Washington and will continue the next day in Annapolis.
The session is expected to span three days, with meetings in both Washington and Annapolis. It 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.
Russians, Saudis seen as key participants
Beyond the formal invitations to the leaders with the most at stake, Bush discussed the meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in a telephone call Tuesday. He also called Saudi King Abdullah to discuss the conference. 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.
“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.
Long list of invitees
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.