A Mideast peace conference called for by President Bush will take place in September on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly meeting in New York, an Egyptian envoy said Thursday.
Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit also said Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will discuss the conference’s agenda with Arab foreign ministers July 31 in the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheik.
“Egypt’s vision is that the meeting should handle a wide number of issues,” he said at a press conference in Cairo. “(That includes) launching the peace process in active negotiations between the Israeli and Palestinian parties.”
The State Department said Thursday the date and place for the conference had not yet been set, reports CBS News’ Charles Wolfson.”
In other developments:
Aboul Gheit’s announcement about the conference came as a one-day meeting in Lisbon brought together the Mideast Quartet â€” United States, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations. It was the group’s first meeting since the hardline Islamic group Hamas wrested control of the Gaza Strip from the more moderate Fatah last month.
The power grab split the Palestinian leadership and placed yet another obstacle in the way of a broad Mideast peace deal. But it also prompted Israel and the West to seek ways to shore up beleaguered Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
On Monday, President Bush proposed that an international gathering be held later this year, aimed at restarting peace talks.
U.S. officials expressed hope that Arab countries, including moderate nations that do not have diplomatic relations with Israel, would attend, in an apparent reference to Saudi Arabia.
With international backing, Abbas now heads an emergency government based in the West Bank. Hamas, which refuses to recognize Israel, remains isolated in Gaza.
A 1991 Mideast peace conference in Madrid, sponsored by former President George H.W. Bush, paved the way for the Oslo peace accords and the establishment of the Palestinian Authority. But repeated stalemates have since left many skeptical that a repeat of that gathering could lead to any enduring breakthrough.
On Thursday, the PLO Central Council drafted a resolution backing the idea of elections, and final approval was expected later in the day. The council is dominated by members of Abbas’ Fatah movement.
The Palestine Liberation Organization, led by Abbas, has become largely defunct in recent years, though officially it is still the umbrella group for all Palestinian factions, except for Hamas which refused to join. Abbas has been trying to harness the PLO for his power struggle against Hamas.
It remains unclear whether Abbas is serious about a new vote or simply trying to pressure Hamas to reverse its Gaza takeover.
The risks of holding elections are high. Abbas aides have said he would run for president again, even though polls indicate his popularity is low and he’d be neck-and-neck with Hamas’ most popular politician, Ismail Haniyeh, who was deposed as prime minister by Abbas last month.
Hamas can prevent voting in Gaza, and this would deepen the territorial division between Hamas-run Gaza and the Abbas-ruled West Bank.
Even if voting goes ahead in the West Bank, a Fatah stronghold, there’s no guarantee Abbas or his party would win. Fatah was ousted in 2006 because of widespread voter anger over official corruption, and the party has failed to reform itself.
If Abbas moves forward with elections, they would likely be held late this year or early next year.
Since the Hamas takeover, Egypt, Israel and a EU team that monitored the Rafah crossing have kept it closed. Health conditions have become a concern because many Palestinians stranded in Egypt went there for medical treatment.
“This crossing must be opened,” said Salah Hassanen, a local leader from Islamic Jihad, one of the groups organizing the protest. “It’s a Palestinian crossing. Our people, our relatives are dying on the other side.”
Later Thursday, Egyptian authorities imposed an indefinite curfew on their side of the divided town of Rafah following rumors that Palestinian gunmen planned to blow a hole in the border wall.