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Saudis may skip Middle East peace conference

Saudi Arabia will probably skip a Mideast peace conference called by President Bush if it doesn’t tackle substantive issues such as the status of Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees, the kingdom’s foreign minister said Wednesday.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Saudi Arabia will probably skip a Mideast peace conference called by President Bush if it doesn’t tackle substantive issues such as the status of Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees, the kingdom’s foreign minister said Wednesday.

Saud al-Faisal’s remarks echoed the skepticism of other Arab leaders over a meeting Washington has billed as a major step forward but whose agenda and participants remain unknown.

“The kingdom sees no benefit in any peace meeting or conference if it is not comprehensive and if it doesn’t tackle major issues,” al-Faisal said. “If the conference doesn’t provide these things, then the kingdom’s participation is doubtful.”

Diplomats and analysts say the conference, which Bush called for in July, presents the region with the first serious opportunity for peace in years. They warn that if the conference collapses, new violence may erupt and faith in negotiations as an efficient tool to resolve conflicts would dissipate.

Washington wants Saudi Arabia to attend to help push the peace process forward and increase public contacts between the Saudis and Israel despite the lack of diplomatic relations between the two countries.

But al-Faisal said the Bush administration has failed to provide either an agenda for the meeting, a list of participants or a timeline for both sides to meet their commitments, raising fears that, “we will enter into never-ending negotiations, something Arab countries don’t want.”

'Photo op' feared
Jordan’s King Abdullah said after meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas Wednesday that “issues pertaining to final status must top the agenda of the conference — foremost among them is the establishment of an independent Palestinian state.”

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak told reporters in the southern Egyptian town of Sohag on Sunday that: “The thing that I most fear is that the lack of acceptable preparations will lead to no results.”

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the U.S. shares the Arab leaders’ hope that the negotiations will address substantive issues, but that an agenda had not yet been set for the meeting.

“The phrase has been thrown around, ’Nobody wants this to be just a photo op,”’ he said. “We couldn’t agree more.”

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice plans to travel to the region next week to meet with both Israeli and Palestinian leaders to begin preparations for the international conference, which is tentatively scheduled for November.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Abbas, who is supported by almost every Arab state, hope to reach a general outline of a final peace deal in time for the conference, and agreed Monday to set up negotiating teams made up of senior officials.

Palestinian officials said Tuesday that Abbas has hinted of progress on two of the most contentious issues: which territories captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war will become part of a future Palestinian state and how the disputed holy city of Jerusalem will be shared, the officials said.

The officials spoke on condition of anonymity since they were not authorized to discuss diplomacy with the media. Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, a confidant of Abbas, said talk that the leaders have agreed on principles or documents are baseless.   Israeli officials said Olmert and Abbas have worked out “overriding principles” toward a final agreement, but have not ironed out details. The Gaza Strip-based Hamas government is not participating.

Agenda may cause problems
A Western diplomat said the conference can only succeed if the top fundamental issues between Israel and the Palestinians are pre-negotiated so a concrete agreement can be reached.

“The conference’s only chance of success is for it to be an endorsement of a deal accepted by both parties,” said the diplomat, who spoke on condition that his name and nationality be withheld.

Anything short of that would lead to the collapse of the conference before it even starts, the diplomat warned.

Jamil Nimri, a prominent Jordanian analyst, said the lack of specifics regarding the objective of the conference may reflect a U.S. desire to avoid a confrontation with Israel.

“The Americans worry that if they present a clear and precise agenda the Israelis may not like it and that may put them in confrontation with the Israelis,” he said.

Nimri said as things stand, “I don’t expect the conference to come up with any results.”