NEW YORK (AP)— Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said yesterday that key Arab nations, including Syria, would be invited to President Bush’s planned Middle East peace conference this fall and expressed hope they will attend.
Formal invitations haven’t been issued yet but Miss Rice said it “would be natural” for Syria, Saudi Arabia and 10 other Arab League members looking at a broad peace deal with Israel to participate despite their hostility to the Jewish state.
“It is very important that the regional players of the international community mobilize to support them,” she said, referring to the Israelis and the Palestinians.
But she said their attendance would have to reflect acceptance of international efforts to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and support for the ultimate goal of a two-state solution and comprehensive regional peace agreement.
“We would hope that the invitations would include the members of the Arab follow-up committee,” Miss Rice told a press conference here after a meeting of the international diplomatic Quartet on the Middle East — the United States, United Nations, European Union and Russia.
Aside from the Palestinians and Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa, the committee members are Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia and Yemen.
Only two of the countries, Egypt and Jordan, have peace deals with Israel, and some, notably Syria, remain technically at war with the Jewish state. Earlier this month, Israel may have launched an air strike on what some reports said was a North Korean nuclear facility in Syria.
The U.S. has long been concerned about Syrian development of weapons of mass destruction and has harshly criticized Syria for its consistent anti-Israel stance, support for Palestinian militants and its role in Lebanon where Damascus is accused of interference.
Miss Rice did not speak to the appropriateness of inviting Syria to the as-yet unscheduled conference that Mr. Bush announced plans for in July and is expected to be held in Washington in November. She said that attendance “has to be a commitment to supporting a two-state solution” and agreement that the chance to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one that “we should not miss.”
Many Arab states said they see no use for Mr. Bush’s conference unless it has clear goals and a realistic chance of meeting them. A senior U.S. official said Miss Rice thought she could allay those fears in her talks yesterday.
Still, there was no immediate reaction from Syria. And, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal was noncommittal about attending the conference after seeing Miss Rice at her hotel before the Quartet meeting.
The Palestinians want the conference to produce an outline for a peace deal; the Israelis want vaguer declarations.
Miss Rice was in the Middle East last week and plans to return to the region soon to continue the planning for the meeting.
Miss Rice’s visit last week coincided with Israel’s decision to declare the Gaza Strip, which the radical Hamas movement seized in June, as “hostile territory.”
That designation dealt a potential blow to efforts to bolster moderate Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who now runs only the West Bank.
Miss Rice conceded yesterday that “the road ahead is one that is very difficult.” But she added: “There is a lot of commitment, and hopefully this time we’ll succeed.”
In addition to the Israelis, Palestinians and the Arab League committee, those to be invited to the U.S.-hosted conference will include the Quartet members and other major international players and donors, possibly including Japan, officials said.
The Quartet’s special representative, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, gave his backing to the conference, saying it would be a crucial element in taking advantage of what he said is growing momentum in the peace process.
The U.N. meeting will set the stage for separate talks today involving Mr. Bush, Mr. Abbas and Mr. Blair.
Meanwhile, Israel yesterday approved the release of 90 Palestinian prisoners in a goodwill gesture to Mr. Abbas. Palestinian officials reacted with disappointment, calling for larger steps at a time when the power struggle with Hamas and the peace process are at critical points.