Arab countries are warming — slightly — to next week’s U.S.-brokered Mideast peace conference despite worries about being pressured to make too many concessions.
Syria is still on the fence about going. And Saudi Arabia is holding out for promises that the conference will launch a firm timetable to negotiate the thorniest Israeli-Palestinian issues — the borders of a Palestinian state, the status of east Jerusalem and the future of millions of Palestinian refugees.
Syria appeared to be softening its conditions for attending the gathering in Annapolis, Md., with President Bashar Assad telling his leadership they must deal with the current situation in a “rational” way. It is being lured by warmer handling by its Arab neighbors, including a visit by Jordan’s king, the first in nearly four years.
But it remained uncertain Wednesday if a Syrian delegation would show up in Annapolis.
The United States has made clear it seeks high-level delegates from key Arab countries to underline support for the Palestinian-Israeli talks that have been deadlocked since 2001.
But many in the Arab world look with skepticism at what they view as a sudden U.S. renewal of interest in a new Middle East peace process, especially after years of reluctance by the Bush administration.
They worry that Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas is being lured into a public relations show that will have little substance, boosting Israel without committing it on the Arabs’ central demand — a withdrawal from land Israel seized in the 1967 war.
Saudi Arabia, whose monarch King Abdullah championed a 2002 Arab peace-for-land proposal, insists that the initiative be included in any deal.
Egypt: Bush has good understanding of concerns
Countries like Egypt also want guarantees that any promises or timetables agreed to in Annapolis will be monitored in some way.
After initially expressing skepticism about the conference, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has since endorsed it and worked on hammering out an Arab consensus ahead of the talks. He plans to meet Thursday with the leaders of Jordan and the Palestinians in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheik.
To justify the new Egyptian attitude, Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit said Wednesday that the invitation sent by the Bush administration touched on many Arab concerns. “It reflects a good and accurate understanding of the importance of achieving a just and comprehensive peace in the region and a settlement of the Palestinian issue,” he said.
Saudi Arabia, Syria may not attend
Mubarak’s efforts to include Saudi Arabia and Syria at Thursday’s summit hit a snag: An Arab diplomat said the two countries’ leaders were too involved in Lebanon’s presidential succession crisis to participate. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media.
Arab foreign ministers were expected to finalize a unified stance Friday, after which the invited countries will announce whether — and at what level — they will attend the Annapolis meeting. So far, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates have said they are attending, and Jordan is a sure bet.
“The whole situation will be reviewed and we will see the cost and the benefit,” Hesham Youssef, a senior aide to the Arab League’s Secretary-General Amr Moussa, told The Associated Press. “But certainly it is an opportunity and we hope that Israel will be committed this time.”
Top officials fear photo op
Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries that do not have diplomatic ties with Israel are concerned that the conference may be an attempt to corner them into contacts — and a photo op — with the Israelis before Israel commits to the Arab land-for-peace proposal.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has tried to allay Arab concerns. After meeting Mubarak, he promised Tuesday that negotiations to be launched by the conference would address all the key issues of the peace process, would take the Arab peace plan into account and could even lead to a final peace agreement in 2008.
Skepticism over the conference has raised tensions between Arab nations and the Palestinians, who have indicated their willingness to go to Annapolis regardless of the Arab League’s position.
Palestinians have showing increasing frustration with Arab nations’ inability to help them achieve their aspirations, and some Palestinian officials have criticized the lack of Arab support.
“If they (Arab countries) try to manipulate the Palestinian card, they will be wrong,” chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat told a Palestinian gathering in remarks televised by Al-Jazeera on Saturday.
Conditions for Syria's attendance
Diplomats say major Arab states, such as Egypt, have voiced concern that they are kept in the dark by Palestinian officials about their contacts with the Israelis.
“They do not even tell us about where they stand on their talks with the Israelis,” said one Egyptian diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
Syria is another puzzle. It has said repeatedly that it would attend the conference only if the discussions include the return of the Golan Heights, a strategic plateau Israel captured from Syria in 1967 and later annexed.
Syria’s president Assad was reportedly dissatisfied with an offer carried to him by Jordan’s King Abdullah II that the Golan issue will be mentioned at the conference’s opening and closing statements. He wants the Golan to be part of conference agenda as a price for Syrian attendance.