Saudi Arabia will attend Middle East peace talks

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The Independent Online

Saudi Arabia and other Arab nations grudgingly agreed yesterday to attend next week's US-sponsored Mideast peace conference, despite failing to get any guarantee of Israeli concessions.

In a sign of the skepticism, even among close US allies, the Saudi foreign minister cautioned that there would be no public handshakes with Israeli officials at the gathering Tuesday in Annapolis, Md.

Still, the Arab League's decision to participate marked a success for the United States, which had pushed hard for regional powerhouse Saudi Arabia to attend the conference.

Washington lauded the decision, saying it was a sign the Annapolis talks would be productive.

"This is a signal they believe this will be a serious and substantive meeting," said Karl Duckworth, a State Department spokesman. "We look forward to as full a participation as possible from all invitees."

It was unclear whether another key player, Syria, would show up, even though it was part of the Arab League's collective decision to participate.

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem said his government was waiting to see if the agenda addressed its priority issue — the return of the Golan Heights, captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war. US officials have said that Syria is free to bring up any issue it wishes at the conference.

The meeting will include discussions on a "comprehensive" Arab-Israel peace deal. But it is mainly intended to launch Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations after a lull of seven years, and Washington had pushed for a strong Arab presence to show support.

Arab leaders made clear they were on board in part to ensure that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas does not make any damaging concessions to Israel in any negotiations on a final peace deal. Israel has dangled the possibility of an accord as early as the end of 2008.

Asked if Abbas has a free rein to negotiate a deal, Arab League chief Amr Moussa underlined that Arab countries would not back an agreement deal that did not meet an Arab peace plan calling for a return of all lands Israel seized in the 1967 war.

"I repeat again and again that we are governed by the Arab initiative in all behaviors and ... and in our agreement to end the Arab-Israeli conflict," he told reporters after the foreign ministers of the league's member states decided to go to Annapolis.

Arab countries — particularly Saudi Arabia, which has no diplomatic relations with Israel — have worried that the conference would corner them into a high-profile meeting with Israel without securing any commitments about the future shape of a peace deal.

Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal said that while he was going to Annapolis, he would not join in any Arab-Israeli handshakes like those stage-managed by US officials at past conferences, such as the one between Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat in 1993.

"We are not prepared to take part in a theatrical show, in handshakes and meetings that don't express political positions. We are going with seriousness and we work on the same seriousness and credibility," he said after the meeting.

"I'm not hiding any secret about the Saudi position. We were reluctant until today. And if not for the Arab consensus we felt today, we would not have decided to go," he said.

Saudi Arabia wants the conference to produce a promise that negotiations will tackle the core issues of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — the borders of an independent Palestinian state, the status of Jerusalem and the fate of Palestinian refugees. It also seeks a timetable for talks, a mechanism to ensure progress and a commitment to the Arab peace plan.

But the Arabs were unable to get any such promises on paper.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said this week that negotiations would address the core issues and that a deal could be reached in 2008. But Israel opposes a formal timetable or a specific mention of the major issues in a joint declaration expected to be issued at Annapolis.

Still, al-Faisal said the Arabs were attending because they saw a real chance for peace. "For the first time, we felt real seriousness (from Israel) — not out of good intentions but of out of real public opinion that they want real peace in the region," he said.

The United States had pressured the kingdom heavily to send al-Faisal, rather than a lower-level figure, with President Bush speaking by phone with Saudi King Abdullah earlier this week. The US already had won Egypt's endorsement of the conference, securing its help in bringing Saudi involvement.

Israel welcomed the news that al-Faisal would attend, with Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev calling it a "positive development."

"We hope this is only the beginning and that we will see greater and broader Arab involvement in the peace process," he said. "For this process to succeed, both Arabs and Israelis will have to take bold steps."

Saudi Arabia, as well as Syria, attended the 1991 Madrid peace conference that brought together Israel and Arab countries. But the kingdom and other Arab nations have been cautious over any steps that would be seen as " normalization" with Israel before it returns Arab lands.

After intense discussions late Thursday and Friday, Arab League members agreed the meeting should be attended by a committee set up earlier this year to deal with the peace process — Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia and Yemen.

Despite the collective decision to participate, Syria's foreign minister was keeping Washington guessing about whether he would show up.

"We haven't made a decision to participate until we receive the agenda of the conference and read it to find an item addressing the Syrian-Israeli track, meaning the occupied Golan Heights," al-Moallem told reporters.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has said there would be room at Annapolis to discuss the Golan Heights.

Asked about Syria, Moussa said "final arrangements" had to be made. He said the Arab foreign ministers would meet again in Washington on Monday, a day before the Annapolis conference.

Arab unity in Cairo on Friday overshadowed voices against Annapolis.

Gaza's militant groups, including the strip's Islamic rulers, Hamas, rallied tens of thousands of their supporters Friday to protest against the US-sponsored meeting, saying it cannot deliver Palestinian rights.

Demonstrators in the southern city of Khan Younis marched following Friday prayers chanting "Death to Israel" and waving banners reading: "Bush is a war criminal not a peacemaker."

In Lebanon, a Hezbollah statement blasted the government for deciding to go to Annapolis, saying the conference was a "conspiracy" and "a step toward liquidating the Palestinian cause."

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