White House plays down Mideast meeting

The White House said Tuesday the international meeting on the Middle East proposed by 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.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 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 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 to 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. You’re going to have parties in the region. You’re also going to have [former prime minister Tony Blair] as the Quartet representative.” With less than 18 months 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 US military, many thousands of Iraqis and contributed to Bush’s sagging approval ratings.

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 recognise Israel as a precondition for talks but would require the group, designated as a terrorist organisation 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.

Thousands of American Christians from across the United States held the second annual Christians United for Israel convention in a Washington hotel.

“Israel’s enemies are our enemies,” Brigitte Gabrielle, a Lebanese Christian, said in a speech. “We need to come together to fight Islamic fascism,” she said.

Frank Gaffney, president of the private Centre for Security Policy, said, “The Islamic fascists have Israel in mind as an appetiser. We are the main course.” And Robert Satloff, executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, speaking about Iran, said Israel is the immediate target of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the United States is the long-term target.

The pro-Israel Christians plan on Wednesday to visit congressional offices to urge support for Israel.

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