Bush's Half-Hearted Summit

By Ulrike Putz and Gregor Peter Schmitz in Beirut and Washington, D.C.

US President George W. Bush plays host this week to a massive summit aimed at pushing the Middle East peace process forward. Expectations, though, are low. Many doubt that Bush is truly dedicated to the project.

It was an elegant setting for the luncheon hosted by the Israel Project one week ago. Guests at the National Press Club in Washington picked at salmon on a bed of salad, forks clinked gently against plates. The hostess spoke quietly of peace and understanding.

But then David Wurmser showed up. For four years, Wurmser was US Vice President Dick Cheney's Middle East advisor. And he is not at all convinced that the region deserves the world's attention. "It is absurd," he said to general astonishment, "that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice contributes to the ozone hole by jetting across the world to bring peace to the Israelis and Palestinians." There are, he went on, much more important challenges, like North Korea, Iran, China, energy policy, Moscow, Japan....

The list seemed endless. "For me, the conflict is way down on the priority list," Wurmser said. "To attach so much importance to it sends the wrong signal."

All Domestically Weak

Wurmser is no longer with the government, having left this year to start his own consulting firm. He attended and spoke at last week's event as a civilian. Still, his comments are telling; they mirror exactly the friction generated by the Annapolis conference within the Bush Administration.

Officially the United States is the proud host, welcoming high-ranking representatives from 49 countries and organizations to the summit with the intention of exploring possible paths to peace between the Israelis and Palestinians. The countries represented even include Saudi Arabia and Syria, neither of which was present at the last major US negotiation initiative, Bill Clinton's 2000 Camp David summit. All the parties are meeting on Tuesday on the premises of the picturesque Annapolis Naval Academy in the state of Maryland, where a banner in one room features the encouraging motto: "Don't give up the ship!"

But even before the first speech was held at the conference, many observers had already abandoned any hope of significant progress. "All the participants have the fear of failure on their minds rather than the hope of success," Tamara Cofman Wittes from the Brookings Institution told SPIEGEL ONLINE, adding that the key protagonists -- US President George W. Bush, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert -- are all very weak domestically.

Help Against Iran

Shmuel Rosner, US correspondent of the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, is not even impressed by the fact that the Arab states are attending. "This whole meeting tells us much more about the host than about the guests," he says.

And the host appears to be moody. Large parts of Bush's team seem to have very little desire to work hard to make Annapolis a success -- already apparent from the disastrous preparation. The mega-conference was not officially confirmed until the beginning of last week, forcing delegations to hurriedly amend their hotel bookings. Briefings with reporters were arranged with just a few minutes' notice -- and clashed with the US-wide travel chaos caused by the Thanksgiving holiday.

Why the half-heartedness? In the White House, the Annapolis conference is increasingly regarded as an admission of weakness, especially in the influential circle surrounding Dick Cheney and the neo-cons. They grudgingly accept that a stronger US engagement for peace in the Middle East is probably the price that has to be paid for more help against an increasingly powerful Iran.

Important US allies such as Saudi Arabia have given clear signals in recent months that they want support in mediating between the Israelis and Palestinians. "The conference is also a product of the changed balance of power in the region," says Wittes. The official line in Washington is that such pragmatic considerations have no effect on the US's Middle East policy and that Annapolis is much more about finding a new start for real peace talks. But few in the Middle East would believe that the US government could be so altruistic. "It is good that the negotiating process is back on track," says Wittes. "But it's not good that it is being exploited for other political aims."

Mustafa Barghouti, the Palestinian Information Minister until June, sees little more than a glimmer of hope in the peace conference. "The US was mainly put under pressure by the Saudis to do something," he told SPIEGEL ONLINE. But the outcome was totally unsatisfactory, he said. The Annapolis conference was poorly prepared and the hectic organization that went into it belied a lack of substance, said Barghouti. "A lot is being done here so that no one notices that nothing is being done."



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