Saudi Arabia and other Arab nations decided Friday to attend next week’s U.S.-sponsored Middle East peace conference. But the Saudi foreign minister said he would not allow “theatrics” such as handshakes with Israeli officials, insisting the meeting make serious progress.
It was still unclear whether Syria — the other major holdout — would attend. Syria has insisted the conference address its demands for the return of the Golan Heights, a strategic plateau which Israel captured in a 1967 war.
The Arab decision was a collective one, including Syria. But after the announcement, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem told reporters: “We haven’t made a decision to participate until we receive the agenda of the conference and read it to find an item addressing the Syrian-Israeli track, meaning the occupied Golan Heights.”
Participation by Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal was a key goal of the United States to show strong Arab support for the conference, which aims to relaunch Israeli-Palestinian peace talks for the first time in seven years. The United States is hosting the talks from Nov. 26-28 in Washington and Annapolis, Md.
Arab League nations decide to attend
Until Friday, the kingdom had balked at saying whether it would attend and at what level, seeking assurances Israel would negotiate the most difficult issues of the Arab-Israeli conflict on a timetable.
Al-Faisal told a news conference the 22-member Arab League had decided Arab countries will attend the conference at the level of foreign minister.
“I’m not hiding any secret about the Saudi position. We were reluctant until today. And if not for the Arab consensus we felt today, we would not have decided to go,” al-Faisal said. “But the kingdom would never stand against an Arab consensus, as long as the Arab position has agreed on attending. The kingdom will walk along with its brothers in one line.”
He insisted that the meeting deal with substantive issues.
“We are not prepared to take part in a theatrical show, in handshakes and meeting that don’t express political positions,” al-Faisal said.
Asked if Syria would attend, Arab League chief Amr Moussa said: “Syria’s foreign minister was present” at the discussions and “the decision is a joint decision.”
But it was not entirely clear from his comments whether Syria could still decide not to attend or may send a lower-level representative.
“We are waiting for final arrangements and it will take place in the additional talks,” al-Faisal said. Those talks will take place in a meeting of Arab foreign ministers in Washington on Monday, a day before the Annapolis conference.
Photo opportunity feared
Saudi Arabia, which does not have diplomatic relations with Israel, has feared the conference would become little more than a photo opportunity, cornering it into high-profile public contacts with Israel without a guarantee of concessions from the Jewish state.
The kingdom was looking for an Israeli commitment that Israeli-Palestinian negotiations will tackle the core, most difficult issues of the conflict, such as final borders of a Palestinian state, the status of Jerusalem and the fate of Palestinian refugees.
But in the end, it is going without a guarantee of getting those commitments in writing.
Israel welcomes news
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has sought to reassure Arab nations, saying negotiations would address the core issues and that a deal could be reached in 2008. But Israel has opposed a formal timetable for talks and the specific mention of the major issues in a joint declaration that is expected to be issued at Annapolis.
Israel welcomed the news that al-Faisal would attend.
“We hope this is only the beginning and that we will see greater and broader Arab involvement in the peace process,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said. “For this process to succeed, both Arabs and Israelis will have to take bold steps.”
Saudi Arabia and Syria attended the 1991 Madrid peace conference that brought together Israel and Arab countries. But the kingdom and other Arab nations have been cautious over any steps that would be seen as “normalization” with Israel before it returns Arab lands seized in the 1967 war.
Other Arab nations coming
The Arab League decision, made after intense discussions late Thursday and Friday, meant that the members of a league committee tasked earlier this year with dealing with the peace process will attend Annapolis. Those countries include Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia and Yemen.
Much of the day’s talks were focused on trying to persuade Syria that the conference would at least in some way address the Golan issue. The league gathering sent a joint letter to Washington demanding that the conference deal with relaunching negotiations between Israel and Syria, which wants the full return of the Golan in return for peace.
At Friday’s Arab League meeting, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas called for the inclusion of the Syrian track at Annapolis.
According to Arab diplomats, while Washington’s invitation did not specifically call for resumption of negotiations on the Golan, it referred to U.N. resolutions concerning the Arab-Israeli conflict as well as the 2002 Arab peace initiative, which calls for a return for Arab lands seized in 1967 in return for full peace with Israel.
Earlier this week, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said there would be room at Annapolis to talk about the Golan.