Text size

The White House said Tuesday the international meeting on the Middle East proposed by U.S. President George W. Bush should not be viewed as a big peace conference and it is too early to say where or when it will be.

However, the U.S. State Department said Tuesday that the meeting would most likely be held in the United States but the participants are still to be worked out.

White House spokesman Tony Snow at first described the meeting as an international conference, but several hours later he backed away from that portrayal as being too ambitious.

After many years of disappointments and setbacks in the search for peace in the Middle East, the Bush administration appears intent on preventing expectations from rising too high. Bush has avoided direct engagement in peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians for several years, and he has been reluctant to ask hard compromises of close ally Israel.

"This is a meeting," Snow said. "I think a lot of people are inclined to try to treat this as a big peace conference. It's not."

Announcing the meeting in a major policy speech Monday, Bush said it would be chaired by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and attended by envoys from Israel, the Palestinians and Arab nations. He framed the meeting in the context that the world can do more to build the conditions for peace.

Bush said the participants would look for innovation and effective ways of support further reform among the Palestinians and provide diplomatic support toward establishing a Palestinian state.

Asked who would be in charge of the international meeting, Snow said, "it's not anybody in charge. What it is, is a gathering of people who are interested. "

With less than 18 months years remaining in his presidency, Bush has little time to achieve a significant foreign policy victory in the Middle East. His record has been darkened by the unpopular war in Iraq, now in its fifth year, that has claimed the lives of more than 3,600 members of the U.S. military, many thousands of Iraqis and contributed to Bush's sagging approval ratings.

Damascus-based Hamas political leader Khaled Meshal scoffed at the White House call for new talks between Israel and Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas. "This process will lead to nowhere," Meshal told the Al-Jazeera TV network late Tuesday.

He blamed Bush for trying to widen the rift between Abbas' Fatah and Hamas.

"As usual, Bush wants to divide the Palestinians and the Arabs into moderates and radicals," Meshal said. "A moderate is accepted by America and a radical is rejected by America. This division was made in the past and now they [Americans] want to do it in the Palestinian arena," he said.

Though the fall meeting's exact date, location, agenda and participants remain unknown, without support from Hamas and its main backer, Syria, there were doubts that the conference would have much real impact.

A 1991 Mideast peace conference in Madrid, sponsored by Bush's father, former president George Bush, paved the way for the Oslo peace accords and the establishment of the Palestinian Authority. But repeated stalemates have since left many skeptical that a repeat of that gathering would lead to a major, and enduring, breakthrough.

Syria's UN ambassador, Bashar Ja'afari, said the conference's legitimacy hinged on the involvement of Washington adversaries Syria and Iran.

"Bush did not elaborate on who would be invited. One minute before he declared this initiative, he attacked Syria and Iran," Ja'afari said in New York. "That means he is excluding, somehow, Syria and Iran from this so-called international conference."

A retired Israeli general proposed, meanwhile, that Israel quietly open a channel to Hamas. We have to start a dialogue to move forward, Israela Oron, who retired 10 years ago, told reporters on a private trip to Washington.

She said she would not insist that Hamas recognize Israel as a precondition for talks but would require the group, designated as a terrorist organization by the United States, Israel and European allies, to accept past accords reached by the Palestinians with Israel.

"Hamas represents at least half the Palestinian people," she said at a conference arranged by the Israel Policy Forum, a private group. "The Palestinian people are normal people. They want to live in peace and quiet," she said.

On Tuesday, Israeli officials welcomed Bush's initiative for an international summit, but Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's spokeswoman Miri Eisin said that "this is not the time to discuss the key issues."

Eisin said the meeting would provide an opportunity to bring together all those who are truly interested in peace in the Middle East. However, she said it is too early to talk about full-fledged peace talks as long as Palestinian violence against Israel continues. A peace settlement would require agreement on such contentious issues as borders, the fate of millions of Palestinian refugees and the status of Israel's disputed capital Jerusalem.

"Israel has been very clear. We don't think at this stage you can talk about final status issues, but such a meeting would certainly add to the capability of arriving at the core issues," she said.

"Still," she said, "Israel thinks the best solution for Israel is Palestine. We need to have a two-state solution, not one state, or Israel ruling over them."

Saudi Arabia on Tuesday welcomed Bush's call, urging wide international backing to avoid repeating the failures of earlier initiatives.

"[The call] has important positive elements ... in line with the Arab peace initiative," the Saudi Press Agency quoted an official statement as saying.

"The kingdom hopes that it [the conference] would be part of a serious international effort tackling core issues of the conflict ... Especially after the failure of partial solutions," it said, calling on Palestinians to unite to pave the way for such a solution.

Saudi Arabia was the driving force behind the 2002 Arab initiative offering Israel normal ties with all Arab states in return for a full withdrawal from the lands it seized in the 1967 Six-Day War, the creation of a Palestinian state and a "just solution" for Palestinian refugees.

The Saudi news agency did not say whether Saudi Arabia - which unlike Egypt and Jordan does not have diplomatic relations with Israel - would actually participate at the proposed international conference. Saudi participation would mark a significant development in Riyadh's policy.

Earlier Tuesday, Syrian President Bashar Assad expressed skepticism, dismissing Bush's international summit initiative as "just words."

Assad said he hoped Bush's announcement was serious, and that Syria was ready for peace talks with Israel, but only in the presence of an honest broker. He did not elaborate on whether he considered the United States as such.

"I read this morning that the American president spoke of his wish to work for a peace conference. I hope... this is true but to this moment these are just words as far as we are concerned," Assad said in an address to the Syrian parliament after being sworn in for a second, seven-year term in office.

U.S. Arab allies were quick to welcome Bush's proposal. Hamas, however, accused Bush of planning a "crusade" with the Palestinians as its target.