Hamas rejects Bush peace talks proposal

( AP ) - Hamas rejected President Bush's proposal for a Mideast peace conference, denouncing it Tuesday as nothing but lies, while Syria said it fears the offer is "just words."

Without cooperation from key Arab players, Bush's last major push for a Mideast breakthrough could falter.

Washington's close Arab allies, including Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan, welcomed Bush's proposal, but stressed the importance of making an Arab land-for-peace proposal first adopted in 2002 as key to any talks. Israel's support was also qualified, with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's spokeswoman saying it was too early to talk about full-fledged peace talks as long as Palestinian violence against Israel continues.

Bush called Monday for an international conference in the fall aimed at restarting peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, saying it was a "moment of choice" in the Middle East. U.S. officials expressed hope that Arab countries, including moderate nations that do not have diplomatic relations with Israel, would attend.

The gathering is aimed at giving international support to U.S.-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, whose forces were recently routed by the Hamas militant group in the Gaza Strip. With international backing, the moderate Abbas now heads an emergency government based in the West Bank. Hamas, which refuses to recognize Israel, remains isolated in Gaza.

Though the fall conference's exact date, location, agenda and participants remain unknown, without support from Hamas and its main backer, Syria, there were doubts that the gathering would have much impact.

The White House played down the meeting's importance Tuesday and said it was too early to say where or when it would take place. "I think a lot of people are inclined to try to treat this as a big peace conference" said White House spokesman Tony Snow. "It's not."

A 1991 Mideast peace conference in Madrid paved the way for the Oslo peace accords and establishment of the Palestinian Authority. But repeated stalemates have since left many skeptical that a repeat of that gathering would lead to a major and enduring breakthrough.

Syria's U.N. ambassador, Bashar Ja'afari, said the conference's legitimacy hinged on the involvement of Syria and Iran.

Bush "did not elaborate on who would be invited. One minute before he declared this initiative, he attacked Syria and Iran," Ja'afari said in New York. "That means he is excluding, somehow, Syria and Iran from this so-called international conference."

Some also were skeptical of Bush's motives.

"The Bush administration is driven by its failure in Iraq and its failure to secure support from U.S.-friendly Arab regimes for its regional policies," said Amr Hamzawy, a Middle East expert at Carnegie Endowments, a Washington-based think tank.

"I read this morning that the American president spoke of his wish to work for a peace conference. I hope ... this is true, but to this moment these are just words as far as we are concerned," Syria's President Bashar Assad said in an address to parliament after being sworn in for a second seven-year term in office.

Assad said he hoped Bush's call was serious, and also said Syria was ready to resume peace talks with Israel, while dismissing again rumors of secret Syrian-Israeli talks.

He said several peace mediators had recently approached him to try to restart talks. "We told those delegations about our firm stance, the rejection of secret negotiations, because there is no need to hide anything from the people," Assad said.

He added that Syria wanted written guarantees on the restitution of the Golan Heights, taken by Israel in the 1967 war, as a precondition to negotiations. The talks, he said, must occur in the presence of "an honest broker." He did not say whether he considered the U.S. as such, although U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has said the world body would be willing to mediate.

In Gaza, Hamas' response was harsher, with the militant group denouncing the Bush proposal as "lies" to the Palestinian people.

"We believe that all promises made by Bush are false promises ... They're lies," said Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri. "The promise of establishing a Palestinian state is old. It will not be implemented."

"This process will lead to nowhere," Hamas' exiled leader, Khaled Mashaal, told the Al-Jazeera TV network late Tuesday.

He accused Bush of trying to widen the rift between Fatah and Hamas. "As usual, Bush wants to divide the Palestinians and the Arabs into moderates and radicals," Mashaal said. "A moderate is accepted by America and a radical is rejected by America.

A top European official warned against isolating Hamas, saying there was a risk of pushing the Islamic militant movement into the arms of al-Qaida.

"Hamas has committed terrorist acts, but it is also a movement of the people. For the West not to recognize a government that was democratically elected ... it is not a very good lesson in democracy," said Italian Foreign Minister Massimo D'Alema.

In Cairo, Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Abou Gheit, said the Bush proposal "contained positive elements that must be adhered to, built upon and developed."

Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah told Bush in a phone call that both "Palestinians and Arabs choose peace," according to a statement carried by the state Saudi Press Agency.

Abdullah spoke in favor of the Arab peace plan, which provides for the normalization of relations between Israel and Arab countries in exchange for Israel's withdrawal from Arab territories it occupied in the 1967 Mideast War. It also calls for establishment of an independent Palestinian state and a settlement for the Palestinian refugees issue.

The Saudi news agency did not say whether the kingdom - which unlike Egypt and Jordan does not have diplomatic relations with Israel - would attend the proposed conference.

Danny Ayalon, a recently retired Israeli ambassador to the United States, said the success of the conference would depend on its participants, including Saudi Arabia.

If, for example, the kingdom attended, he said, it would add immediate clout to the gathering and might encourage Bush to attend the conference himself.

Olmert's spokeswoman, Miri Eisin, also said she hoped the meeting could bring together "an umbrella of support for Palestinian moderates ... especially moderate Arab countries supporting the Palestinian moderates."

But she also cast doubt on whether the conference would produce tangible results, arguing it was too early to talk about full-fledged peace talks with Palestinian violence continuing.

Saeb Erekat, a top aide to Abbas, urged that the conference move beyond confidence-building. "The best thing to do is focus on substance at this meeting," he said.

Preparations among U.S. Arab allies for the fall meeting were already under way.

Aboul Gheit, the Egyptian minister, said Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice would visit Egypt this month where she would meet with top Arab diplomats in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-sheik to discuss Bush's proposal.

A meeting of the Quartet of Middle East peacemakers - the U.N., U.S., European Union and Russia - was scheduled this week in Portugal. Aboul Gheit, who left for Portugal on Tuesday, and his Jordanian counterpart, Abdul-Ilah al-Khatib, are to visit Israel on July 25. Arab foreign ministers meet in Cairo five days later.

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