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Last Updated: Tuesday, 16 October 2007, 22:52 GMT 23:52 UK
Weighing US efforts for Mid-East peace
By Jonathan Beale
BBC News, Washington

It has been easy to express scepticism - even cynicism - about the Bush administration's efforts to try to bring about peace in the Middle East.

Condoleezza Rice and Mahmoud Abbas
Condoleezza Rice is on her seventh trip to the Middle East this year

After all, this is an administration that throughout its entire first term - and much of its second - has shown little sense of urgency.

There is suspicion too as to why the Bush administration has chosen to focus on the issue now.

Is America's recent engagement little more than PR - trying to appease growing Arab anger, trying to win support for its actions in Iraq?

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is aware of those doubts and this week in Ramallah gave them short shrift.

"We have better things to do than invite people to Annapolis for a photo op," she said, and then described President George W Bush's peace initiative as "the most serious effort to end the conflict in many, many years".

Furiously spinning

Easy to say perhaps - but there is also proof that words are being matched by deeds.

Mahmoud Abbas and Ehud Olmert
Ms Rice has pushed for Mr Abbas and Mr Olmert to hold meetings

This is Ms Rice's seventh visit to the region this year.

She has already pushed successfully for Israel's Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas to hold regular bilateral meetings to discuss what she calls the "political horizon" of a future Palestinian state.

US officials are quick to remind the sceptics that Mr Bush is the first US president to commit himself to the creation of a Palestinian state.

Israeli and Palestinian officials - at least those who are members of the more moderate Fatah movement - have also started meeting in working groups.

Both sides are also furiously spinning ahead of the forthcoming conference - likely to take place in Annapolis, in the US state of Maryland, and tentatively scheduled for the end of November.

Hard choices

The Palestinians have made clear that they will only attend if the discussions are to address the detail of the most intractable problems - the expansion of Jewish settlements, the final status of Jerusalem and the return of refugees.

Aerial view of Jerusalem
The Palestinians want discussions on the final status of Jerusalem

Mr Olmert, too, has been making clear that he has little room for political manoeuvre. Does either Mr Olmert or Mr Abbas have the political backing to make the hard choices?

For now Ms Rice is playing her cards close to her chest. It is not yet clear whether she will put forward her own ideas on which the Annapolis discussions will focus.

She clearly does not want this to be seen as America imposing its own plan - rather, it is facilitating an agreement.

Hence she is billing the Annapolis talks as an "international" conference.

But Syria has already warned that it might not bother turning up - and Ms Rice has made no effort to woo Damascus.

This administration also continues to isolate the Palestinian movement Hamas, which seized power in the Gaza Strip in June, ousting Fatah forces loyal to Mr Abbas.

Lacking time

There is a sense in Washington that the Bush administration is still not doing enough.

A letter to Mr Bush signed by Zbigniew Brzezinski, former National Security Advisor to President Jimmy Carter, Brent Scowcroft, former National Security Advisor to Presidents Gerald Ford and George HW Bush, and by Lee Hamilton, co-chairman of the Iraq Study Group, calls for the talks to be opened up to those Arab states that "currently do not enjoy diplomatic relations with Israel" and an end to Hamas's isolation.

The letter warns that "if Syria or Hamas are ostracised, prospects that they will play a spoiler role increase dramatically".

Yet despite those concerns, few strongly criticise the Bush administration's latest efforts, coming as they do after a seven-year hiatus.

Not many think the Annapolis conference on its own can achieve a breakthrough. The conditions for peace are not at their best - and time is not on the Bush administration's side.

But, although this might yet end up as a glorified "photo op", it could still be the beginning of a new peace process.

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