- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 5, 2002

From combined dispatches
CAIRO The 22 nations in the Arab League will not participate in a U.S.-sponsored Mideast peace conference until Israel withdraws from lands it occupied during the latest violence with Palestinians, the league's secretary-general said yesterday.
The potential holdouts include moderate Egypt and hard-line Syria, both of which said separately yesterday that they would not attend unless Israel withdraws from lands seized since the conflict began in September 2000.
Secretary of State Colin L. Powell announced plans last week for a conference, likely to be held next month, that would attempt to clear the "political way forward" for a Palestinian state. Israeli Radio reported yesterday that the conference could be held in Turkey.
It is not known who will attend, but a U.S. official has said the invitees are expected to include parties that have shown an interest in advancing the peace process.
The United Nations, the European Union and Russia have endorsed the idea, while Israel said it must know more about the conference before deciding whether to attend.
But Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa said in Cairo that Arab countries will not participate unless Israel withdraws from the disputed territory.
"How could we think about such a conference while Israel is still occupying the Palestinian territories? What is the authority and agenda of this conference?" he asked.
"We have important conditions, and this would be one of the issues discussed in upcoming Arab meetings until we reach a consensus."
Foreign ministers of Arab League members will meet in Cairo this week, Mr. Moussa said. Previously, the Arab League had offered Israel normal relations with Arab countries in exchange for withdrawing from lands seized in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.
Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher and President Hosni Mubarak's top adviser, Osama Baz, will meet Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in Ramallah today, an Egyptian diplomat in Jordan said yesterday.
Mr. Arafat welcomed the conference proposal but said he would consult Arab leaders before deciding on the Palestinian Authority's participation.
Mr. Maher said that the conference was "still under discussion" and repeated Mr. Moussa's position that there cannot be a meeting with Israelis until Israeli troops vacate Palestinian territories.
Syrian President Bashar Assad was quoted by the official news agency as saying, "What are the negotiations going to yield if there is no clear course?"
"The limits and criteria of the wanted negotiations must be known," Mr. Assad was quoted as saying.
Syria's absence would deprive the conference of a major player in Mideast peacemaking. Syria has long insisted that it will not make peace with Israel until Israel withdraws completely from the Golan Heights, a plateau captured in 1967 and later annexed.
The Jordanian government did not say whether it would attend, but State Minister for Foreign Affairs Shaher Bak said the conference would have to be "well prepared and have clear references," the official Petra news agency reported.
Lebanese Foreign Minister Mahmoud Hammoud declined to commit yesterday. But Lebanon will likely follow the decision of Syria, its dominant eastern neighbor, on whether to attend the conference.
Lebanon's Shi'ite fundamentalist group Hezbollah said yesterday that the U.S.-proposed peace conference is a "trap" to offer Israel normalized ties with the Arabs without finding a solution to the Palestinian issue.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is expected to discuss the peace conference when he meets with President Bush in Washington on Tuesday.
Palestinian statehood when, how and, perhaps, whether it will happen is expected to top the agenda at Mr. Sharon's talks in Washington.
Mr. Bush expects Mr. Sharon, who leaves today for his U.S. visit, to commit to the timely creation of a full-fledged Palestinian state, even as Mr. Sharon's own Likud party prepares to rule out the creation of such an entity.
Zalman Shoval, a Sharon adviser and former Israeli ambassador to the United States, said Mr. Sharon would present Mr. Bush with ideas for a long-term interim deal with the Palestinians and that the two would discuss the "right formula for Palestinians to govern themselves." He said Mr. Sharon would, in his meeting with Mr. Bush, try to agree on "goals but not necessarily timetables."

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