- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 4, 2002

JERUSALEM Israel and the Palestinians cautiously welcomed yesterday an international proposal to convene a Mideast peace conference early this summer, with their participation yet to be decided.
Meanwhile, at Camp David, President Bush tried to play down expectations for the gathering.
"It's just a series of ongoing discussions to help solidify the visions that have been expressed by not only the United States, but the Europeans, but more importantly, the visions expressed by Israel, the Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia," Mr. Bush told reporters at a press conference with visiting Spanish President Jose Maria Aznar.
Mr. Bush will meet next week with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, for the fifth time, and with King Abdullah II of Jordan.
Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, speaking at his shell-struck headquarters in the West Bank town of Ramallah yesterday, said he had not been officially informed of the plan, and a Palestinian Cabinet minister said Israel must first withdraw from all the land it seized during the uprising.
"Until now, it is only an idea, and we welcome it, but we have still not agreed to it," Mr. Arafat said, adding that he wanted to consult with Arab leaders. Arab League foreign ministers are scheduled to meet next week in Cairo.
Israeli government spokesman Gideon Meir said Israel wanted to hear more details on the meeting before deciding whether to attend. The time, location and participants are still being discussed.
Secretary of State Colin L. Powell announced the Mideast peace conference proposal Thursday with the support of U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, leaders of the European Union and Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov.
Mr. Powell said one of the goals of the meeting would be to clear the "political way forward" to a Palestinian state.
In Washington, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said yesterday that foreign ministers would lead the delegations to the peace talks. Asked whether Mr. Arafat was essential to any talks, Mr. Fleischer said: "That remains to be seen." Mr. Bush has not met with Mr. Arafat during his presidency.
Palestinian Cabinet Minister Nabil Shaath said Palestinians would not back the proposal for talks until Israel leaves land seized during the uprising and international observers are in the Palestinian territories. Israel has repeatedly rejected such international monitoring.
"The conference can only take place once the Israelis have complied with [U.N.] Security Council resolutions and withdraw from Palestinian areas occupied since the intifada," Nabil Shaath told the Associated Press late Thursday.
Except for the holy city of Bethlehem, Israeli forces have withdrawn from most of the West Bank areas they seized in an operation that began March 29, after a wave of suicide bombings in Israel.
Israeli officials noted that in March, Mr. Sharon proposed a regional peace conference: Israel's response to an Arab peace initiative, under which Israel would withdraw from all territories it occupied in the 1967 war, in exchange for comprehensive peace with the Arab world.
At the time, Mr. Sharon said he wanted Israel, the Palestinians and Arab states to attend a regional conference, while his advisers said Mr. Arafat which Israel regards as a terrorist would not be welcome. Mr. Sharon staunchly opposes giving back all the territory captured in 1967.
Mr. Sharon was to meet with Mr. Bush in Washington next week to discuss the idea for a conference.
The Israeli daily Haaretz said yesterday that Mr. Sharon would propose an interim agreement of indefinite duration with the Palestinians, with the details to be worked out in a regional conference. Palestinians, who have negotiated a series of interim deals with Israel since Mideast peacemaking began at a 1991 conference in Madrid, have said they would not settle for another partial deal.
Mr. Arafat's aides, meanwhile, appeared to be skeptical about the idea, saying they did not want to renegotiate deals already reached with previous Israeli governments.
Palestinian Cabinet Minister Saeb Erekat said the conference's goals and terms of reference would have to be clearly defined.
"This conference would have to come with a mandate and a target, which is to put an end to Israeli occupation," Mr. Erekat said. "We don't want to turn back 11 years, when a conference was held in Madrid and the same decisions were taken."
The Arab response was difficult to gauge yesterday, a Muslim holiday. In Cairo, Arab League spokesman Hisham Youssef said he could not comment on the conference plan, as Arab governments were awaiting details from the Americans.

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