- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 18, 2007

CAIRO — Hamas rejected President Bush“s proposal for a Mideast peace conference, denouncing it yesterday as nothing but lies, while Syria said it fears the offer is “just words.”

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

Washington”s close Arab allies, including the region”s traditional power brokers — Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan — welcomed Mr. Bush“s proposal but stressed the importance of making an Arab land-for-peace proposal first adopted in 2002 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.

Mr. 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 relatively moderate nations that do not have diplomatic relations with Israel, would attend.

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

Syria“s ambassador to the United Nations, Bashar Ja”afari, said the conference”s legitimacy hinged on the involvement of Syria and Iran.

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

Syrian President Bashar Assad, in an address to parliament after being sworn in for a second seven-year term in office, said that he hoped Mr. Bush“s call was serious and that Syria was ready for peace talks with Israel, but only in the presence of what he called an honest broker. He did not say whether he considered the United States as such, although U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said the world body would be willing to mediate.

In Gaza, Hamas” response was harsher, with the militant group denouncing the 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.”

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

Saudi Arabia“s King Abdullah told Mr. 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.

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