Arabs urged to back Mideast conference

Egypt, Jordan and the Palestinians sought Thursday to persuade skeptical Arab nations to attend a U.S.-sponsored Mideast peace conference, insisting it could open the door to a Palestinian state in the next year. Saudi Arabia and Syria remain the most important holdouts.

Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak held a mini-summit with the leaders of Jordan and the Palestinians in this Red Sea resort, bringing together the strongest Arab supporters of next week's conference in Annapolis.

Their meeting came ahead of a key gathering of Arab foreign ministers in Cairo on Thursday night and Friday that will determine who will attend the conference and at what level.

So far, Saudi Arabia and Syria have appeared unconvinced the conference will bring significant peace commitments from Israel. The Saudis want a firm timetable for negotiations on the important issues of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, while the Syrians are pressing for Annapolis to address the Israeli-held Golan Heights.

Egypt insisted Thursday that Annapolis could mark a major breakthrough.

Mubarak's spokesman Suleiman Awad said the Bush administration was "achieving progress that will pave the way to the establishment of the two states and an independent Palestinian state within the next year and before the end of Bush's term."

"This is a commitment for a timetable that we hear for the first time," he told reporters as Mubarak, Jordan's King Abdullah II and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas met. He said the three leaders agree that "the conference gives a large space for optimism."

Awad said Annapolis would launch "serious peace negotiations according to a timetable and with an agreed upon follow-up mechanism" - all top demands of Saudi Arabia.

The United States is pushing for Saudi Arabia, which unlike Jordan and Egypt has no peace agreement or diplomatic relations with Israel, to send its foreign minister. President Bush spoke Tuesday by telephone with Saudi King Abdullah.

The kingdom remained noncommittal. Crown Prince Sultan said he wished the conference success and that the kingdom's decision will "take into consideration the current circumstances," the Saudi state news agency reported.

Saudi Arabia is concerned that the conference will corner it into a high-profile meeting with the Israelis without assurances that Israel will address the most difficult issues of the peace process, such as the borders of a Palestinian state, the status of east Jerusalem and the future of millions of Palestinian refugees.

The kingdom also wants Annapolis to endorse a Saudi-sponsored Arab peace plan that offers Israel peace with all Arab countries in return for the return of land seized in the 1967 war.

Saudi doubts have been fueled by Israel's resistance to directly mentioning the core issues in a joint statement the Israelis and Palestinians hope to put out at Annapolis.

In a Nov. 17 draft of the joint statement, published Thursday in the Israeli daily Haaretz, Israel's proposals for the language make no mention of the main issues and avoid any talk of a timetable for negotiations. The draft shows wide differences with the Palestinian proposals, and it is not known if subsequent negotiations have succeeded in narrowing them.

At a meeting with Mubarak on Monday, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert sought to reassure Arab countries, praising the Arab peace plan and insisting negotiations launched at Annapolis will address the core issues - even if the two-day conference does not. He also said a final deal could be reached in 2008, though he did not commit Israel to a timetable. ( AP )

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