Reporters persist with the same question: Does the Bush administration have a new peace plan to present to Israel and the Palestinians?
"There's not a plan. There's a two-way exchange with a number of players," explains a senior State Department official.
A round of consultations with officials representing the United Nations, Europe, the Arab world and the parties most directly involved, Israel and the Palestinians, is nearing an end and, officials indicate, it will lead to the Bush administration's next major step toward Middle East peace.
President George W. Bush has invited Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to Camp David this weekend for an exchange of views. These talks will be followed, almost immediately, by a meeting at the White House on Monday with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
"The administration has talked to enough people. We know what people want," says the senior State Department official. "We've started to put together ideas -- not a plan … as we look forward to an international meeting."
The meeting, or peace conference as some prefer to call it, was first called for by U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell during his most recent trip to Jerusalem in April.
In case anyone thinks there might be a higher profile foreign policy problem than making peace in the Middle East, the record shows that the Monday meeting with Sharon will be his sixth with Mr. Bush; that King Abdullah of Jordan has met with the President four times and that Mubarak's weekend at Camp David will mark the third time he's met with Mr. Bush. In addition, Mr. Bush and Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Abdullah held talks at the President's Crawford, Texas ranch in April.
One key figure is missing from the President's meeting list: Yasser Arafat. There's been no White House invitation for the Palestinian leader from the Bush administration (he was a frequent visitor during the Clinton era), and there isn't likely to be one unless and until he demonstrates what the Bush team sees as real leadership in stopping terrorism against Israelis. Even so, Powell, Assistant Secretary of State Bill Burns and CIA Director George Tenet have met with Arafat, so aside from the personal snub, it's not as if the administration doesn't know what Arafat wants.
Where is all this talk leading? The current three-part strategy calls for establishing better Palestinian security performance in stopping terrorism, renewing a serious political process aimed at a two-state solution and building up Palestinian Authority institutions in preparation for statehood. Everyone, it seems, is ready for the next step.
Depending on the outcome of his talks with the Egyptian and Israeli leaders, and perhaps any new terrorist incidents, Mr. Bush has a number of options open to move things from talking, to planning, to implementing an internationally agreed upon plan. He may decide to make a policy statement himself or have Powell do it. Special Middle East envoy Anthony Zinni could be sent back to the region for still more negotiations, or the often talked about international meeting/conference could be announced.
Whatever Mr. Bush decides, his credibility and prestige will be put to a new test, and the same will be true for the two political leaders most directly affected, Sharon and Arafat. The land being fought over and talked about may be the land mentioned in the Bible, but unlike the Bible, no one here is expecting miracles.
By Charles M. Wolfson