WASHINGTON — Republican candidates for the presidency are distancing themselves from President Bush's effort to broker a Middle East peace at an ambitious Arab–Israeli summit that will begin next week.
On Tuesday the State Department announced that it had invited 40 countries, including Sudan and Syria, to a one-day conference at the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, Md., on November 27.
The night before, on November 26, President Bush will deliver a speech to kick off a meeting his diplomats say they hope will be "a launching point for negotiations leading to the establishment of a Palestinian state and the realization of Israeli-Palestinian peace." Mr. Bush yesterday spoke by phone with King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, whom Mr. Bush apparently hopes will at least send his foreign minister next week to the Maryland capital.
But with the president embracing the mediation effort he largely rejected in his first term, the Republicans who hope to replace him sound like Mr. Bush did in 2002 when he made changes in the leadership of the Palestinian Authority a prerequisite for the final status talks he hopes the Annapolis meeting will spur.
Mayor Giuliani's chief foreign affairs adviser, Charles Hill, yesterday told the New York Sun, "Israel, as a sovereign ally, can decide with whom it wants to negotiate. But it would be very risky to push toward Palestinian political goals when the institutional foundations of statehood do not exist."
Another Republican presidential candidate, a former senator from Tennessee, Fred Thompson, told a group of about 100 people in Sioux City, Iowa that he saw no reason for optimism with regards to Annapolis. "There's not reason for great optimism there to tell you the truth," he said, according to footage captured from the NBC affiliate in Sioux City "This has been a longstanding thing. …These are tough, tough problems, and a part anyway, of the Palestinian Authorities are committed, apparently still, to the destruction of Israel."
Mr. Thompson is only the latest major Republican candidate to throw cold water on the pending Annapolis summit. On October 16, the former governor of Massachusetts, Mitt Romney, told the Republican Jewish Coalition, "There's just not anyone to talk to right now who has those institutions in place." Senator McCain of Arizona on October 30 warned against going for a permanent solution all at once. "An encompassing, all encompassing, one-step solution was tried by former President Clinton and I think that's probably a very, very difficult accomplishment," he said.
Mr. Giuliani kicked off the Annapolis skepticism among his party's presidential nominees in August with his essay in Foreign Affairs. He wrote, "It is not in the interest of the United States, at a time when it is being threatened by Islamist terrorists, to assist the creation of another state that will support terrorism."
Secretary of State Rice has said that the Annapolis meeting will be a way of further isolating Hamas and strengthening the Fatah president, Mahmoud Abbas, who dissolved the coalition government after Hamas took over Gaza by coup. Since Hamas was excised from the Palestinian Authority, Prime Minister Olmert has removed his objection to meetings with his Palestinian counterpart. After meetings through the summer and fall, the State Department hopes momentum from Annapolis will act as a launching pad for even more meetings to discuss a final status solution to the conflict.
Ms. Rice has also invited the Syrian government to participate in the talks, raising the prospect that Israel will be asked to relinquish the Golan Heights, territory it won in the 1967 six day war. The decision to invite the Syrians is significant because President Bush had resisted high level diplomacy with Damascus in light of what American, French and Saudi officials says is the state's campaign of assassinations in neighboring Lebanon. Mr. Bush has also accused Syria of allowing al Qaeda suicide bombers to enter Iraq from its territory.
The pending peace summit has divided the New York congressional delegation as well. On Monday, Rep. Gary Ackerman, a Democrat from New York who heads the House subcommittee that oversees Middle East policy, and Rep. Charles Boustany, a Republican from Louisiana of Lebanese ancestry, sent a letter with the signatures of 135 members of Congress to Ms. Rice urging more funding for the Palestinian Authority. The letter also urges the State Department to lift restrictions on American funding to the Palestinian Authority that were established after Hamas won the parliamentary elections in January 2006.
Rep. Eliot Engel, a Democrat from New York who often votes with Mr. Ackerman on matters Middle Eastern, yesterday said he did not put his name on the letter.
"I did not find anything wrong with the letter per se. We all know intellectually that there is Hamas and Fatah. We all know Fatah is more moderate than Hamas," Mr. Engel said.
But he added, " It is like choosing between a bad party and a terrible party, a troublesome party and a terrible party." He went on: "I worry about Annapolis. It seems to me that the table is set once again to put pressure on Israel to make unilateral concessions and get nothing in return but worthless pieces of paper or worthless pronouncements."
Ms. Rice's old mentor in the George H. W. Bush administration, Brent Scowcroft, signed a letter last month urging America and the Quartet to reach out to Hamas and seek an Israel-Hamas cease-fire.
A man who served until September as senior adviser to Vice President Cheney, David Wurmser, yesterday told reporters at an event sponsored by The Israel Project Tuesday that he thought the Annapolis summit would likely fail. "Trying a summit at a moment when the sides are least capable of cutting a deal risks making the Sunni regimes look weak," he said. Mr. Wurmser added that the likely failure of the Annapolis summit would further embolden Iran's bid to take over the leadership of Arab nationalism and the Palestinian cause, strengthening the very regional power Ms. Rice believes will be checked by reinvigorating the peace process.