- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 23, 2007

RAMALLAH, West Bank — U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has told Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas that Washington plans to invite six Arab states, including Syria, to a Middle East peace conference, Mr. Abbas’ aides said.

Mr. Abbas’ senior aide, Nimer Hammad, said yesterday that Washington would like Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, plus the Palestinian Authority to attend the U.S.-sponsored conference, expected to be held in November.

Miss Rice met with Mr. Abbas during her sixth visit to the region last week as part of efforts to prod Israel and the Palestinians closer to an agreement ahead of the conference.

“Rice told President Abbas in their meeting on Thursday that the U.S. plans to invite the Arab states delegated by the Arab League to follow up the Arab peace initiative. These … states, of course, include Syria and Lebanon,” Mr. Hammad said.

Miss Rice did not say publicly during her visit who would be invited to the conference, expected to be scheduled in the Washington area.

Among the six Arab states, only Jordan and Egypt have full diplomatic relations with Israel. The rest link formal ties with the Jewish state to an Israeli withdrawal from Arab land it occupied in 1967. Relations between Israel and Syria are particularly tense after reports that the Jewish state conducted air strikes in Syria this month.

Syria has said it was ready to take part in the conference President Bush suggested in July to try to revive Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking. U.S.-Syrian relations have plummeted in recent years because of policy differences over Iraq, Lebanon and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Doubts have risen recently about the conference from Israeli-Palestinian differences over the outcome of the meeting, with Saudi Arabia saying it may not attend unless the discussions addressed all issues and a timetable for peace was agreed in advance.

The Palestinians have said it would be difficult for Mr. Abbas to attend a conference that other Arab countries boycott. “We hope enough progress could be made before the conference in order to encourage Arab states to attend,” a senior Abbas aide said.

Mr. Abbas’ aides said the Palestinian leader was coming under pressure from his own Fatah group and from some Arab states to boycott the conference if he failed to get written guarantees on key conditions ahead of the meeting. Those conditions include agreement on a Palestinian state in the West Bank, including Arab East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip, with a clear implementation timeline.

Miss Rice said at a press conference last week she had assured Mr. Abbas that the Middle East peace conference should put the Palestinians firmly on the path to establishing their own state. She said she was optimistic Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Mr. Abbas could agree on a joint document on key final-status issues such as borders, the fate of Jerusalem, Palestinian refugees and Jewish settlements — but she said she did not think the document would include a timetable for Palestinian statehood.

A senior Palestinian official close to the talks said Mr. Abbas briefed Miss Rice on the progress he had made with Mr. Olmert and that the two leaders would meet again later in the month. He said they had agreed on broad principles — such as making Jerusalem a shared city that is the capital of two states — but would defer talks on practicalities until after the conference.

The fate of Jerusalem is one of the most sensitive issues for Israelis and Palestinians alike.

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