President Bush's planned meeting on the Middle East in November has been dealt a severe body blow as the Palestinians and Saudi Arabians threaten to boycott the meeting if their agenda demands are not met.
A senior advisor to Palestinian Authority and PLO Chairman Mahmoud Abbas is reported in Israelinsider on 17 September as stating:
"We can live without the summit, but if it does take place and fail by producing nothing more than a joint statement, then it could prove to be a danger for the whole region. We must not attend such a summit. We're not demanding the resolution of the entire problem by then, but we are demanding a significant breakthrough from the meeting."
Saudi Minister of Foreign Affairs Prince Saud Al Faisal has echoed these demands:
"If this conference will not discuss serious topics aimed to resolve the conflict, put Arab initiative as a key objective, set an agenda that details issues as required and oblige Israel to withdraw from the occupied territories, this conference will not have any objective and will turn into protracted negotiations."
These peremptory demands represent an attempt by the Arabs to try and set the agenda for the meeting that go way beyond what the President initially announced.
President Bush clearly enunciated the intended scope of the meeting on 16 July when he declared:
" The world can do more to build the conditions for peace. So I will call together an international meeting this fall of representatives from nations that support a two-state solution, reject violence, recognize Israel's right to exist and commit to all previous agreements between the parties. The key participants in this meeting will be the Israelis, the Palestinians, and their neighbours in the region. Secretary Rice will chair the meeting. She and her counterparts will review the progress that has been made towards building Palestinian institutions. They will look for innovative and effective ways to support further reform. And they will provide diplomatic support for the parties in their bilateral discussions and negotiations, so that we can move forward on a successful path to the Palestinian State."
On 17 July President Bush's spokesman Tony Snow was asked the following question:
" What significance can we read into the fact [that] you're now saying it's a meeting in the Mideast. Yesterday, when you first started teasing this out, you said its significant, a conference; but now it's a meeting. What's - why are we back peddling here?"
Mr Snow replied:
"Well, no, I think what has happened is it was being spun up as a major peace conference where people are going to be talking about final status issues and that is not the case. And the President made that pretty clear. You can call it what you want. Call it a confab. You guys have thesauruses and you also have extensive vocabularies [laughter] but the fact is that it will be a gathering where people really do try and get down to nuts and bolts issues of helping build that institutional capability so that the Palestinian government will be in a position to move on to the next phases."
President Bush needs to tell the Palestinians and Saudis where to get off.
He must make it absolutely clear to them in no uncertain terms that the agenda will deal precisely with the three issues he enumerated in his 16 July statement:
1. Reviewing the progress that has been made towards building Palestinian institutions.
2. Innovative and effective ways to support further reform.
3. To receive a report on bilateral discussions and negotiations and to provide diplomatic support for the parties in those discussions and negotiations.
If he fails to show leadership on this issue and nip the proposed Arab boycott of his meeting in the bud, he will demonstrate that he is not the master of his own affairs and is merely a lame duck in the hands of others.
The Arabs are testing the President. He needs to immediately reject their attempts to wriggle out of the upcoming meeting.
Set the above agenda and let those who are truly interested in exploring the President's ultimate vision of another State between Jordan and Israel attend the meeting so that it will proceed in accordance with the initiative he has proposed.
If the Arabs fail to show, perhaps the President will realise his vision is not being taken seriously by them.
"Show up or shut up" might well be the message President Bush sends to everyone he invites to the meeting.
At least he will then know who is genuinely prepared to travel down the road with him to try and resolve a conflict that has now lasted for 125 years and has proved an insurmountable stumbling block for many of the Presidents before him.
Perhaps he might then well conclude that he should turn his attention to other pressing world issues where his efforts to bring a just and lasting peace will be truly appreciated.