US Official Hints at Delay in Middle East Summit

"These are really tough issues," State Dept. official says regarding the 100-year-old Jewish-Arab conflict. "This is going to take some time."

Hillel Fendel ,

Secretary Rice
Secretary Rice

Associated Press reports that a U.S. State Department official says that the Middle East conference, scheduled by U.S. President George W. Bush for late November in Annapolis, Md., might be delayed. 

"This is going to take some time," the official said after Jerusalem meetings between Israeli leaders and visiting U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice.  "This is going to require a lot of hands-on American diplomacy. These are really tough issues."

Secretary Rice, currently visiting in Israel, met with several Israeli government ministers on Sunday, including Defense Minister Ehud Barak, Industry and Trade Minister Eli Yishai of the Shas party, and Finance Minister Roni Bar-On of Kadima. 

Bar-On told Rice that it was still too early to get into the nitty-gritty of negotiations for a final Israel-PA peace deal, as the Palestinian Authority demands and the United States would like. 

Minister Yishai was more to the point, saying that Jerusalem can simply not be put up for negotiation.  If his party in fact resigns from the government, this would almost certainly be followed by a similar walk-out by Yisrael Beiteinu, thus toppling the government and forcing new elections.

Yishai further said the PA is run by two heads - Hamas in Gaza, and Fatah in Judea and Samaria - and that the prospects of an agreement are very small.  In light of the dangers of increased terrorism in the event of a summit failure, Yishai said, the summit should deal not with political matters, but with economics.  He added that he would be happy to meet with his PA counterpart to advance the relevant issues.

Secretary Rice expressed a sense of historical impatience: "We've been putting these issues off for decades, and it's time that everything is put on the table and decided. The time has come for a Palestinian state."

Rice admitted that the PA is a weak negotiating partner, but said it must be strengthened.  Acknowledging Olmert's coalition difficulties, Rice said she would not force him to take steps that are "not acceptable to Israel."  She reportedly also told PA leader Mahmoud Abbas not to expect significant achievements during or before the summit. 

The summit is scheduled for November 26, but formal invitations to the various countries have not yet been sent out.

Dispute Placed in Focus
The dispute between Israel and the PA was placed into clear focus on Sunday.  Olmert told his Cabinet that he is making efforts to arrive at an agreed-upon statement with the PA before the conference, "even though the existence of such a statement was never a condition for holding this conference."  Acting PA foreign minister Riad Malki, however, said straight out, "Without a document to resolve this conflict, we can't go to the conference next month."

Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni has been appointed to head Israel's team formulating the joint declaration.

Rice, whose convoy was held up for 15 minutes in an Arab neighborhood between Jerusalem and Ramallah on Monday morning while a suspiciously parked car was investigated, is here for a five-day visit.  She will be meeting with Israeli, Egyptian, Jordanian and PA officials.

Fatah and Hamas
Meanwhile, Abbas and his Fatah faction are trying to both renew contacts with Hamas,  and to keep these efforts secret.  Abbas has denied a report in the London-based Al Hayat newspaper stating that he plans to resume talks with Hamas following the summit.  The two terrorist organizations have been holding secret talks regarding a possible renewal of official contacts between them.  Israel has made great efforts to strengthen Abbas, with the condition that he not renew talks with Hamas.