SHARM EL SHEIK, Egypt — President Bush's proposal for a Middle East peace conference in the fall received a boost today when Saudi Arabia, a key player with no diplomatic ties to Israel, unexpectedly agreed to participate in the meeting.
As the Saudi decision attracted almost universal praise, the United States is still struggling with a decision whether to invite Syria, which has expressed a desire to participate in the forum, to be chaired by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
We are interested in a peace conference that deals with the substantive matters of peace Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal said at a press conference with Miss Rice and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, who are making a rare joint visit to the region to seek help stabilizing Iraq.
"If [the planned conference] does so, it becomes of great interest for Saudi Arabia and should we then get an invitation from the secretary to attend that conference, we will look very closely and very hard at attending the conference, he said.
The Saudi announcement came as a surprise even to Miss Rice, who had told reporters on her flight to the Middle East that she was not coming with invitations to the conference. Her caution reflected the sensitivity of pushing the Saudis too much.
Even Egypt, which usually is eager to host peace summits, refused to lobby Saudi Arabia to attend, U.S. and Arab diplomats said this week in the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el Sheik, where Miss Rice and Mr. Gates met with top officials from eight Arab states.
The Egyptians have not offered to host the fall conference. Its place and time are still to be determined.
After Mr. Bush made his proposal on July 16, some U.S. officials floated the idea of convening the meeting during the opening of the U.N. General Assembly in New York in September. Arab officials, however, prefer that it be held in the Middle East.
Miss Rice also seemed to indicate this week that next month may be too early. She said she would make several visits to the region to prepare for the conference before it can take place.
U.S. officials said she wanted to assure the Arabs, some of whom have expressed concerns that the conference would be for show.
Many Arabs are skeptical about this conference, said a senior Western diplomat in Egypt. They want signs that the United States can deliver Israel and push it to do more for the Palestinians. They are asking how close to final-status negotiations the conference can come.
Israeli and U.S. officials have pointedly avoided the phrase final-status negotiations in the past several months, and Miss Rice bristles every time she is asked about it. She insists the focus should be on building Palestinian institutions leading up to a Palestinian state.
Arab and Western diplomats said there is still serious doubt in the region that the Bush administration is truly committed to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The Arabs respect the secretary, but they say the president has to be personally involved for there to be movement, a Western diplomat said.
Syria"s desire to participate in the fall conference is already stirring controversy. Its foreign minister, Walid al-Moalem, said yesterday that his country will support and participate in any international conference for peace.
Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa said earlier this week that peace cannot be completed without [Israeli] withdrawal from Syrian territory, so all the parties have to be there. He was referring to the Golan Heights.
Any international gathering has to be comprehensive, a serious one, and the agenda has to be considered carefully, Mr. Moussa said in Cairo. It should include all those involved in the conflict, and the time frame must be defined.
Miss Rice continued on today to Jerusalem, where she met with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni. Tomorrow, she is scheduled to hold talks in the West Bank with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
The Egyptian and Jordanian foreign ministers traveled to Israel last week to present a 2002 Arab peace initiative. It offers Israel normal relations with all Arab states in return for Israeli withdrawal from the territory it occupied in the Middle East war of 1967.
Egypt and Jordan are the only Arab countries that have diplomatic relations with Israel.