Arabs to Send Top Ministers to Annapolis

By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, November 24, 2007

JERUSALEM, Nov. 23 -- The U.S.-sponsored gathering to launch a new round of Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations received a lift Friday when Arab countries, including politically influential Saudi Arabia, decided to send delegations led by their most senior diplomats.

Meeting in Cairo, the 22-member Arab League gave what amounted to a cautious endorsement of the conference, which is scheduled to begin Tuesday in Annapolis, Md.

But it remained unclear whether Syria, which plays an influential role in Palestinian politics, would attend. Israel seized the Golan Heights from Syria in the 1967 Middle East war, and Syrian officials have pressed to have the area's return placed on the agenda.

The State Department welcomed the Arab League's decision to participate in the Annapolis conference at the ministerial level. "This is a signal they believe this will be a serious and substantive meeting," State Department spokeswoman Nicole Thompson said.

The Bush administration had been reaching out to Arab countries, many of which do not have diplomatic ties with Israel, to persuade them to send delegations at the ministerial, rather than ambassadorial, level. Doing so gives the meeting higher-level support in the Arab world, where the six-decade conflict has widely scattered hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees and been an enduring source of political unrest.

Many Arab countries had been withholding support pending the results of pre-conference talks between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators, who have failed to produce a joint declaration outlining the goals and timeline of the peace negotiations to follow it. The last formal Israeli-Palestinian talks collapsed in January 2001, early in the most recent Palestinian uprising.

"I'm not hiding any secret about the Saudi position -- we were reluctant until today," Prince Saud al-Faisal, Saudi Arabia's foreign minister, said at a news conference in Cairo. "And if not for the Arab consensus we felt today, we would not have decided to go."

With its vast oil wealth and authority over Islam's holiest sites, Saudi Arabia exercises great sway among Arabs, including the two largest Palestinian factions.

Israeli and U.S. officials have said Saudi participation would be important in translating the largely symbolic gathering in Annapolis into serious negotiations toward a two-state solution. Israeli and Palestinian officials say they hope to forge a peace agreement next year, which would give the Bush administration a rare diplomatic triumph in the Middle East before it leaves office.

Saudi Arabia is the chief proponent of a plan endorsed by the Arab League in 2002 that offers Israel broad recognition by Arabs in exchange for withdrawal from all territories seized in the 1967 war, including East Jerusalem. The so-called Arab initiative, which Israeli negotiators refused to include in drafts of the joint statement, also calls for a "just" solution to the plight of Palestinian refugees who demand the right to return to homes inside Israel.

In agreeing to attend the conference, Faisal warned that he would not participate in a "theatrical show," including exchanging handshakes with Israeli leaders. "We are going with seriousness," he said.

Saeb Erekat, a member of the Palestinian negotiating team, said Saudi Arabia and other Arab nations had decided to attend because the meeting's goal is only to "start new talks, not conclude them." He added, "But this is a very important decision."

Israeli officials say the current political climate in the Middle East improves the prospects for this round of talks, despite coming at a time when the Palestinian electorate is in disarray.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, a leader of the secular Fatah party, is running the West Bank. The Gaza Strip, meanwhile, is in the hands of Hamas after the armed Islamic movement seized the territory in June from U.S.-backed Fatah forces. Hamas, which rejects Israel's right to exist, has warned Abbas against conceding anything to Israel at Annapolis.

But Israel and many Sunni Arab countries see a common threat in the rising power of Shiite Iran. Israeli officials say that may open the door for a political alliance between the Jewish state and Arab nations, giving both parties a greater interest in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.

"It is very important this process is supported in the Arab world," said Mark Regev, a spokesman for Israel's Foreign Ministry. "The Israeli-Palestinian track, if it is to succeed, cannot merely be supported in the West."

Staff writer Robin Wright in Washington contributed to this report.

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