This is a rather moving interactive feature by Steven Erlanger, the New York Times correspondent in Israel, on the devastating economic crisis in Gaza. I recommend it if you have a few minutes:
I did a story several years ago on the lack of foreign investment in Gaza. Click here to read it. Also, just as my skepticism took on a new form, the invitations have been sent out and a date set for the Annapolis (Maryland) Palestinian-Israeli summit. (Alas, I did not receive an invitation – it must be lost in the mail. To find out who did, click here) Ehud Olmert was in Egypt with President Hosni Mubarak and the two men (both of whose countries are the first and second highest recipients of US dollars, respectively) gave the thumbs-up to the conference.
Here’s the story from the New York Times:
Wanted: Participants for Mideast Talks
WASHINGTON, Nov. 20 — The Bush administration finally acknowledged publicly on Tuesday that it had issued formal invitations to 40 countries and organizations that it hopes will attend a heavily anticipated Middle East peace conference scheduled for next week in Annapolis, Md. But the long, drawn-out route that State Department officials followed before making the acknowledgment reflected the high-stakes gamble that the administration is taking, as well as the unsettled nature of the outcome. Even late Tuesday afternoon, administration officials were still in negotiations with their Arab counterparts over whether Saudi Arabia and Syria would send their foreign ministers to the conference, or make do with lower-level envoys.
President Bush telephoned King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia on Tuesday to enlist his support for the conference, and in particular to try to get an agreement from him that the Saud family would be represented at the conference by Prince Saud al-Faisal, the foreign minister, administration officials said.
The presence of Prince Saud is seen as critical to assure a certain level of Arab commitment to the peace process. But the Saudi royal family has been unwilling to give the Annapolis conference a high-level endorsement without assurances that the negotiations will be substantive, with real concessions from Israel, including a freeze on settlements that would lead to Israeli withdrawal from land that it seized in 1967.
Gordon D. Johndroe, a White House spokesman, would say only that Mr. Bush and King Abdullah had “shared their views of the process that is under way between the Israelis, Palestinians and the international community.”
C. David Welch, the assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, said in a news conference on Tuesday evening that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice sent an invitation to both Prince Saud and the Syrian foreign minister, Walid al-Moallem. Mr. Welch said the decision to attend was up to the individual countries, but added, “I’m hopeful and expectant of a positive response.”
An Arab official with knowledge of the negotiations said it was likely that Prince Saud would attend the Annapolis conference. The official spoke on condition of anonymity, citing diplomatic protocol.
Mr. Welch said “we won’t turn off the microphone” if Mr. Moallem, who rarely interacts with administration officials because of administration policy toward Syria, attends the conference and wishes to speak there. Israeli officials had asked that Syria be invited, and several State Department officials have said privately that it would be a mistake to exclude Syria from the meeting.
If Saudi officials sit down with the Israelis, it will be a rare event at public Israeli-Palestinian talks. Prince Bandar bin Sultan, then the Saudi ambassador to the United States, attended a peace conference in Madrid in the fall of 1991, but as an observer, not a formal participant.
Saudi Arabia does not recognize Israel, although Saudi officials have also urged the Bush administration to push hard to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli peace issue. There have been some unconfirmed reports of other contacts between Israeli and Saudi officials, including some earlier this year.
The conference, which will begin with a preliminary meeting in Washington on Nov. 26 and move to Annapolis on Nov. 27, is supposed to initiate final-status peace negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians to settle the long-running, seemingly intractable issues that have bedeviled peace negotiators since 1979.
“This is the holy grail of diplomacy,” a senior administration official said. “We’re trying to rally the Arab world for support of this process, and they are master fence-sitters.”
Mr. Bush is expected to begin the Annapolis conference with a substantive speech, and part of the American effort to woo Arab leaders includes assurances to them that he will lay out an ambitious agenda that will pin all sides to firm negotiations on the status of Jerusalem, the dismantling of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and the contours of a Palestinian state.
“This is the point where the rubber meets the road,” said Martin Indyk, the former United States ambassador to Israel. “The United States really wants for Arab states to turn up, to bless the process.”
Until Tuesday evening, State Department officials would not officially confirm even the date of the conference.
“My hope and desire is that we can talk to you, in the not-too-distant future, about not only the list of invitees, but the date as well as the agenda for the Annapolis conference,” Sean D. McCormack, the department spokesman, said at a briefing early in the day, in language that was opaque even by diplomatic standards. “I anticipate there’s going to be a day that all the participants are going to be at Annapolis, and there are probably going to be events the day before and the day after.”
Appearing with the Israeli prime minister in Sharm el Sheik, Egypt, President Hosni Mubarak on Tuesday gave his full endorsement to the scheduled gathering, and raised hopes among Israeli officials of wider Arab participation at the meeting.
“Obviously we would hope that Egypt’s position will be representative of a larger Arab position,” said Mark Regev, an Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman.
At a joint news conference at Sharm el Sheik, an Egyptian Red Sea resort, both leaders billed the Annapolis meeting as a springboard for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations toward a final settlement of the conflict.
Israeli officials described Tuesday’s summit meeting as “covering bases” ahead of a meeting of Arab League foreign ministers in Cairo on Thursday. Israel sees Arab support for the budding Israel-Palestinian peace process as crucial, to give added legitimacy to the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas.
Helene Cooper reported from Washington, and Isabel Kershner from Sharm el Sheik, Egypt.