Arab supporters of peace talks try to sway holdouts
SHARM EL-SHEIK, Egypt - Egypt, Jordan, and the Palestinians sought to persuade skeptical Arab nations yesterday to attend a US-sponsored Mideast peace conference, insisting it could open the door to a Palestinian state in the next year. Saudi Arabia and Syria remain the most important holdouts.
Egypt's president, Hosni Mubarak, held a summit with the leaders of Jordan and the Palestinians in this Red Sea resort, bringing together the strongest Arab supporters of next week's conference in Annapolis, Md.
Officials from Saudi Arabia and Syria have appeared unconvinced the conference would bring significant peace commitments from Israel. The Saudis want a firm timetable for negotiations on the important issues of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, while the Syrians are pressing for Annapolis to address the Israeli-held Golan Heights.
Late yesterday, foreign ministers and two ambassadors from countries on the Arab League's peace initiative committee began informal meetings in Cairo. The talks are expected to chisel a unified Arab stand on the Annapolis conference that would be endorsed today at an official Arab League meeting.
Egypt insisted yesterday that Annapolis could mark a major breakthrough.
Mubarak's spokesman, Suleiman Awad, said the Bush administration was "achieving progress that will pave the way to the establishment of the two states and an independent Palestinian state within the next year and before the end of Bush's term."
"This is a commitment for a timetable that we hear for the first time," he told reporters as Mubarak, Jordan's King Abdullah II, and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas met. He said the three leaders agree that "the conference gives a large space for optimism."
Awad said Annapolis would launch "serious peace negotiations according to a timetable and with an agreed upon follow-up mechanism" - top demands of Saudi Arabia. The United States is pushing for Saudi Arabia, which unlike Jordan and Egypt has no peace agreement or diplomatic relations with Israel, to send its foreign minister. President Bush spoke Tuesday by telephone with Saudi King Abdullah.
The kingdom remained noncommittal. Crown Prince Sultan said he wished the conference success, adding that the kingdom's decision will "take into consideration the current circumstances," a Saudi state news agency reported.
Saudi Arabia is concerned that the conference will corner it into a high-profile meeting with the Israelis without assurances Israel will address the toughest issues of the peace process, such as the borders of a Palestinian state and the status of east Jerusalem and of millions of Palestinian refugees.
The kingdom also wants Annapolis to endorse a Saudi-sponsored Arab peace plan that offers Israel peace with all Arab countries in return for land seized in the 1967 war.
Saudi doubts have been fueled by Israel's resistance to list the core issues in a joint statement the Israelis and Palestinians hope to put out at Annapolis.
In a Nov. 17 draft of the joint statement, published yesterday in the Israeli daily Haaretz, Israel's proposals for the language make no mention of the main issues and avoid discussion of a timetable.
At a meeting with Mubarak on Monday, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of Israel sought to reassure Arab countries, praising the Arab peace plan and insisting negotiations launched at Annapolis will eventually address the core issues - even if the two-day conference does not.