updated 11/6/2007 2:12:00 PM ET 2007-11-06T19:12:00

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Tuesday that a U.S.-sponsored Mideast peace conference would take place in the last week of November, and he expected invitations to be issued "in the coming days."

Olmert's announcement was the closest any official has come to giving a firm date for the gathering and signaled new momentum in preparations following a visit this week by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. During her trip, Rice said she was encouraged by her latest meetings with Israeli and Palestinian leaders.

"I assume the Americans will issue the invitations in the coming days and coordinate the exact date in the last week of November," Olmert told a news conference. Previously, U.S. officials have only said the meeting would take place by the end of the year in Annapolis, Md.

Syria, which is among the countries invited, said it would attend if discussions included the return of the Golan Heights, a strategic plateau Israel captured from Syria in the 1967 Middle East war and later annexed.

"We have occupied lands — and that is the Golan Heights — for Syria to attend any such meeting requires that the Golan Heights issue is clearly on the agenda," Syrian Deputy Prime Minister Abdullah Dardari told The Associated Press in London, where he is attending a banking conference.

Rice and Olmert said Sunday they wanted Syria to participate — but that the conference must focus on the Palestinians and not Syria's grievances.

High expectations
President Bush announced plans for the conference in July, but officials have not announced a date because of continuing disagreements between Israel and the Palestinians over the agenda and questions about who will attend.

The U.S. has set high expectations for the summit, saying it hopes to launch full peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians after a seven-year lull.

U.S. officials also hope a number of Arab countries that do not have relations with Israel, including Saudi Arabia, would attend. Arab countries have said they would only attend if there were guarantees of firm progress.

Israel and the Palestinians have been trying to agree on a written set of principles outlining a future peace agreement ahead of the conference, but negotiators say they have made little progress.

The Palestinians want the document to address "core" issues in the conflict: future borders between Israel and a future Palestinian state, the status of disputed Jerusalem and the fate of Palestinian refugees. Israel wants a much vaguer document, though Olmert has said he is prepared to discuss these issues after the conference.

The core issues have scuttled past peace talks, and members of Olmert's ruling coalition have threatened to bring down the government if he goes too far with concessions.

In Portugal, Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni called the U.S.-backed "road map" for peace "the only agreed plan in town — in the world."

She praised the Palestinians for making "the right steps on the ground," an apparent reference to security measures taken by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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