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Syria, last Arab holdout, to attend peace talks

Arab holdout Syria agreed Sunday to attend a Mideast peace conference called by President Bush to restart talks to resolve the six-decade conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, yet expectations for the summit remained low.
Image: Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas arrives at a hotel in Washington
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, left, arrives at a Washington, D.C., hotel Sunday before a scheduled peace conference on Palestinian statehood in Annapolis, Md.Loay Abu Haykel / Reuters
/ Source: The Associated Press

Arab holdout Syria agreed Sunday to attend a Mideast peace conference called by President Bush to restart talks to resolve the six-decade conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, yet expectations for the summit remained low. The two sides came to Washington without agreeing on basic terms for their negotiations.

Bush invited the Israeli and Palestinian leaders to separate meetings at the White House on Monday to prepare for the centerpiece of his Mideast gathering — an all-day session Tuesday in Annapolis, Md.

It is to be the only time that Bush, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas meet together, and their three-way handshake is expected to be the conference’s symbolic high point. Bush closes the U.S. effort with a second set of separate Israeli and Palestinian meetings at the White House on Wednesday.

“The broad attendance at this conference by regional states and other key international participants demonstrates the international resolve to seize this important opportunity to advance freedom and peace in the Middle East,” Bush said in a statement Sunday.

Israeli and Palestinian negotiators were meeting with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her deputy for the Mideast region, still trying to write a framework for talks that their U.S. hosts had hoped would be complete by now. Rice’s spokesman said the last-minute work is not surprising.

“We’re confident there will be a document and we’ll get to Annapolis in good shape on that,” but bargaining may well continue behind the scenes during the session Tuesday, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said in an interview.

“It will memorialize their common understandings to this point,” and look ahead to negotiations the two sides expect to begin in earnest after the session, McCormack told The Associated Press.

U.S. official: Meeting a starting point
The Bush administration, which has largely taken a hands-off approach to the nitty-gritty of Mideast peacemaking until now, says the goal is to set up an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel.

Israeli and Palestinian leaders have said they want to do that by the time Bush leaves office in January 2009. While there are widespread doubts in the administration about that time line, Rice has said she is game to try.

“This is not a negotiation session, it is to launch negotiations,” said Bush’s national security adviser, Stephen Hadley.

Hadley said that during his address to the conference Tuesday, Bush will make clear that the Mideast peace process has his support, and that it is a top priority for the rest of his time in office. But he is not expected to use his speech to advance any of his own ideas on how to achieve that by wading into the issues that have kept the parties bitterly divided.

The conference is meant to draw Arab and other outside backing for what will be difficult negotiations. The idea is also to let Arab states have their say alongside Bush, making it more difficult for them to complain that Washington is not doing enough or is not listening to good advice from those closest to the conflict.

Syria agrees to send envoy
Syria, which borders Israel and has no diplomatic relations with the Jewish state, gave Washington a partial victory Sunday by agreeing to send a lower-level envoy to the session.

Syria wants to raise the question of the Golan Heights, strategic territory Israel seized from Syria in the 1967 war. The U.S. hosts and Israel have agreed, at least tacitly, to listen.

Other major Arab states whose participation was considered essential had decided on Friday to send their top diplomats.

Isreal hopes for spirit of peace
As 16 Arab nations and the Arab League prepared to sit down with Israel for the first time in more than a decade, Israel’s ambassador to Washington said what Arab leaders say and do after the conference can change the bitter atmosphere in the Middle East.

“Annapolis is about two things,” Ambassador Sallai Meridor said in an interview. Foremost is furthering direct talks between Israel and the Palestinians “and the other thing it is important for is creating international and Arab support for this process,” Meridor said. “We hope the Arabs will come and come with a spirit of peace.”

Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who is leading negotiations for her country, suggested that a lack of Arab backing contributed to the failure of the last round of talks. That effort collapsed in bloodshed in the waning days of the Clinton administration in early 2001.

The Arab world, Livni told reporters en route to Washington, “should stop sitting on the fence.”

“There isn’t a single Palestinian who can reach an agreement without Arab support,” she said. “That’s one of the lessons we learned seven years ago.” But, Livni added, “it is not the role of the Arab world to define the terms of the negotiations or take part in them.”

Big questions to come later
Whatever joint agreement the Israelis and Palestinians present at Annapolis will be a starting point and is likely to sketch only vague bargaining terms.

The big questions that have doomed previous peace efforts, such as the borders of a Palestinian state, the status of disputed Jerusalem and the rights of Palestinians and their descendants to return to homes in what is now Israel, would come later.

Palestinian negotiator Yasser Abed Rabbo said Palestinians hoped to work out a joint document, but that an agreement was not essential because of assurances received in the U.S. invitation to the conference.

That invitation, he said, “includes all the terms of reference for the future negotiation” and “confirms that both sides are committed” to putting in place the peace process. “This is enough to launch negotiations after the conference.”