Plans for international peace conference still up in air

Or whether it should take place at all.

With many options on the table about whom to invite and what to discuss, little has been determined definitively about the shape and scope of the meeting that is now being touted as a ministerial meeting.

No date or place has yet been set for the gathering, which Secretary of State Colin Powell announced earlier this month with the leaders of the United Nations, European Union and Russia.

Planning for the conference has been complicated by the situation on the ground. When it was announced, Israel had completed a military operation aimed at bringing a halt to suicide bombings, and there was widespread support for the Palestinian Authority's need to reform.

But after a brief respite, the suicide bombings have resumed, with Israeli forces continuing operations in the West Bank to arrest suspected terrorists.

Among the more important details to be worked out is the participation of the Palestinian Authority and its president, Yasser Arafat.

The Bush administration is hinting that it would prefer to deal with a leader other than Arafat.

"If a new structure emerges that could better represent the views of the Palestinian people, we will look at that institution or structure as one that could advance the cause of peace," a State Department official said.

While the State Department is not publicly championing a replacement for Arafat, sources suggest the administration is hoping that one emerges amid U.S. and international efforts to reform the Palestinian political and security infrastructures.

"We are talking to people inside and outside the Palestinian Authority structure," the official said.

Two American envoys were going to the region this week to work on different aspects of America's three-pronged initiative for moving forward in the Middle East: Establishing security cooperation, forging a political process, and working toward economic, political and security changes in the Palestinian territories.

Assistant Secretary of State William Burns' trip, which will focus on Palestinian transformation activities, is being looked to as a way to lay the groundwork for the peace conference.

"Our hope is that he makes some headway, so that we can make some progress in advance of the ministerial meeting, so that we can have some meaningful benchmark at the ministerial meeting," the State Department official said.

CIA Director George Tenet, whose mission has been postponed as the administration sought to define his role as the situation on the ground changed, was expected to leave for the Middle East today.

His mission, announced by President Bush during meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon earlier this month, is to help streamline the security infrastructure within the Palestinian territories into a single apparatus.

But even as the administration forges ahead in planning the peace conference, the prospect remains that the conference will achieve little, or that it will be called off entirely.

The prevailing view in Washington is that the Bush administration is in flux on how to move forward in the Middle East, and that the conference was announced without a clear agenda.

"It is my sense that this conference was a reflection of not an idea, but the absence of an idea," said Danielle Pletka, vice president for foreign and defense policy at the American Enterprise Institute.

"This is a reflection of the fact that the Bush administration is at a loss."

But Powell, speaking to reporters in Rome on Tuesday, said the administration is moving forward with the vision previously laid out by Bush.

He also reiterated the administration's commitment to the meeting "sometime in the summer."

But another State Department official said, "There's always a possibility that it wouldn't happen."

But while the term for the talks has been changed from "international peace conference" to "ministerial meetings" in an attempt to lower expectations, proponents say the meeting is still the next step in U.S. efforts to curb continuing violence in the Middle East.

But officials and analysts are debating just what substance the meeting can and will address.

One view is that the meeting should have a broader focus and resemble a regional conference, with discussions to include the international war on terrorism and the Iraqi situation.

This approach, favored by Sharon and being dubbed "Madrid Plus," after the Madrid peace talks in 1991 that launched the Oslo peace process, would create an environment for a discussion about the peace process, rather than getting into specific details.

An alternative possibility suggested by observers is to have a more structured forum on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, complete with timelines and agreements.

Indeed reports surfaced this week that the administration is working on an agreement that would serve as the basis for discussions.

The effort, as reported by The Washington Post, would address some of the final-status issues, such as Jerusalem, borders and refugees, which previous administrations and regional leaders have failed to agree upon.

But while a State Department official won't deny that an effort is under way to flesh out final-status details, he also said there is reluctance to present an agreement that would replace the need for direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

Responding to the report in Rome, Powell said, "We are not at this point prepared to table an American plan with specific deadlines."

Also in flux is who will represent Israel. A meeting of foreign ministers, which was suggested to overcome Sharon's objections to Arafat, would likely lead to Shimon Peres representing Israel.

But the Israeli foreign minister's Middle East outlook differs significantly from that of Sharon, and the prime minister may want to attend on his own.

An Israeli official said the differences between Sharon and Peres are overstated, and that a delegation from the country would represent the view of the unity government.

Also being considered is how to approach Arab leaders.

While the Bush administration has embraced the recent words of Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah and Jordan's King Abdullah, there is a feeling that the Arab leaders have been unable to convince Arafat to halt terrorism, and it is unclear how much more leverage the countries are willing to exert.

Although the conference was originally the idea of the Arab world, some Arab leaders are now hesitating after Sharon began to push the idea himself.

Now both sides are concerned that the meeting will be played out on the other's terms.

As one American Jewish leader put it: "Everyone is seeing how they can maximize it for their own best interest."

And a great deal of skepticism remains.

"The best definition of the conference I could gather is that it will bring the parties together and see what overlaps," said Richard Murphy, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

"It doesn't have to be a formal get-together for that level of abstractness or generality."