Arab Nations To Attend Peace Conference

In this photo released by Saudi News Agency, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is accompanied by Saudi foreign minister Prince Saud al-Faisal upon her arrival at Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, late, Tuesday, July 31, 2007.
Saudi Arabia and other Arab nations decided to attend next week's U.S.-sponsored Middle East peace conference, but the Saudi foreign minister insisted he would not allow "theatrics" like handshakes with Israeli officials, saying the gathering must make serious progress.

Participation by Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal was a key goal of the United States to show strong Arab support for the conference in Annapolis, Maryland, which is to re-launch Israeli-Palestinian peace talks for the first time in seven years.

Until Friday, the kingdom had balked at saying whether it would attend and at what level, seeking assurances Israel would negotiate the most difficult issues of the Arab-Israeli conflict in negotiations governed by a timetable.

It appeared Syria - the other major holdout - would also attend, since the Arab decision was a collective one. But, asked about Syria's attendance, Arab League chief Amr Moussa said "final arrangements" had to be made. Syria has insisted Annapolis address its demands for the return of the Israeli-held Golan Heights.

The U.S.-backed peace conference in Annapolis will be the first fully-fledged Middle East peace talks since 2000, when former president Bill Clinton hosted a meeting between Israeli and Palestinian leaders at Camp David, CBS News producer George Baghdadi reports from Damascus.

Al-Faisal told a press conference that an Arab League meeting Friday had decided that Arab countries will attend Annapolis at the level of foreign minister.

"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," al-Faisal said. "But the kingdom would never stand against an Arab consensus, as long as the Arab position has agreed on attending, the kingdom will walk along with its brothers in one line."

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

Asked if Syria would attend as well, Moussa said "Syria's foreign minister was present" at the discussions and "the decision is a joint decision."

But, he added, "we are waiting for final arrangements and it will take place in the additional talks," which will take place in a meeting of Arab foreign ministers in Washington on Monday, a day before the Annapolis conference. It was not clear if the comments meant Syria could still decide not to attend or to send a lower-level representative.

Saudi Arabia, which does not have diplomatic relations with Israel, has feared that the conference would become little more than a photo op, cornering it into high-profile public contacts with Israel without a guarantee of concessions from the Jewish state.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told reporters Wednesday that other disputed issues could be raised at Annapolis, including the Golan Heights. Indeed, one of the three sessions to be held at the conference's plenary session on Tuesday will deal with comprehensive peace, Baghdadi reports.

"Syria's taking part in any conference or meeting on peace in the region is conditioned to the inclusion of the issue of the Golan on its agenda as well as the Israeli withdrawal from the occupied Arab territories until June 4th 1967 line," said Minister of Information Mohsen Bilal in a lecture at Damascus University on Wednesday.

The kingdom was looking for an Israeli commitment that Israeli-Palestinian negotiations will tackle the core, most difficult issues of the conflict, such as final borders of a Palestinian state, the status of Jerusalem and the fate of Palestinian refugees.

But in the end, it is going without a guarantee of getting those commitments in writing.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has sought to reassure Arab nations, saying negotiations would address the core issues and that a deal could be reached in 2008. But Israel has opposed a formal timetable for talks and the specific mention of the major issues in a joint declaration that is expected to be issued at Annapolis.

Israel welcomed the news that al-Faisal would attend. "We are happy ... that they (the Saudis) feel a need to have representation at a significant level," Miri Eisin, spokesman for Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, said. "We are happy that they are involved and are showing support for the process to make sure it goes forward."

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 "naturalization" with Israel before it returns Arab lands seized in the 1967 war.

The Arab League decision, made after intense discussions late Thursday and Friday, meant that the members of a league committee tasked earlier this year with dealing with the peace process will attend Annapolis. Those countries include Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia and Yemen.

Much of the day's talks were focused on trying to persuade Damascus that the Annapolis conference would at least in some way address the Golan issue. The league gathering sent a joint letter to Washington demanding that the conference deal with relaunching negotiations between Israel and Syria, which wants the full return of the Golan in return for peace.

"We are waiting for the American response," Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem told reporters earlier Friday, adding that the response would decide whether Syria would attend the conference or not. "What would be the importance of Syria participation if Golan wasn't part of the agenda?"

At Friday's meeting, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas called for the inclusion of the Syrian track at Annapolis.

Nimr Hamad, an adviser to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, said that the priority of the Annapolis conference is for the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, "without exluding the Syrian and Lebanese angles."

He said there is a proposal to hold a second conference in several months in Moscow to launch Syrian-Israeli peace negotiations.

According to Arab diplomats, while Washington's invitation did not specifically call for resumption of negotiations on the Golan, it referred to U.N. resolutions concerning the Arab-Israeli conflict as well as the 2002 Arab peace initiative, which calls for a return for Arab lands seized in 1967 in return for full peace with Israel.

Earlier this week, Rice said there would be room at Annapolis to talk about the Golan.