Iran's supreme leader urges boycott of Mideast peace talks
TEHRAN - Iran's supreme leader yesterday called on Muslim countries to boycott a US-sponsored Middle East peace conference, saying the international meeting would hurt Palestinians.
"Efforts are being made to once again make an imposition on the Palestinian people in the name of peace. . . . The result of all conferences held in the name of peace so far have been to the detriment of the Palestinian nation," Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said in a speech marking the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
While releasing few details, American officials have said the meeting next month will be a serious attempt to create peace between Israel and the Palestinians. The talks are expected to be held in Annapolis, Md., although US officials have not yet released the agenda or the final guest list.
Israeli officials and the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, hope to present the contours of a final peace accord at the session, but Palestinian and Israeli officials hold widely different expectations of what it is meant to achieve.
Palestinians are calling for a detailed preliminary agreement with a timetable for creating a Palestinian state. Israel is pressing for a vaguely worded document that would gloss over the toughest issues - borders, control over disputed Jerusalem, and a solution for Palestinian refugees who lost their homes in the 1948 war that followed Israel's creation.
The conference is the highest-profile engagement by the Bush administration in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will be back in the region this week to check on Israeli and Palestinian preparations for it.
Iran doesn't recognize Israel and wants the establishment of a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital. Khamenei, who has the final say on all state matters in Iran, has repeatedly called Israel a "cancerous tumor" that needs to be removed from the Middle East.
The head of the Iran-backed Palestinian Hamas government in the Gaza Strip, Ismail Haniyeh, also has urged Arab countries not to attend the conference.
"Palestinians have rejected this [conference]. How can other governments attend this conference?" Khamenei said, referring to the Islamic militant Hamas.
There is also growing skepticism about the conference among some Arab governments, which have expressed doubts that the gathering will tackle the main issues of the conflict with Israel.
The Bush administration has said it will invite its Iran-allied adversary Syria to the conference, but Syria's president, Bashar Assad, has all but ruled out his country's participation. Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia have not said whether they will attend.
Hamas seized power in Gaza from Fatah security forces loyal to Abbas in June. Abbas retaliated by expelling Hamas from government and setting up a Western-backed government in control of the West Bank.
A key element of the peace negotiations will be the final borders of the Palestinian state.
Israel has been tightening its hold on parts of the West Bank for years, through expanding settlements and more recently, a separation barrier. The barrier would eventually slice off 8.6 percent of the territory and, according to UN data, incorporate 380,000 of 450,000 Israelis living on war-won land the Palestinians demand for their state-to-be.
Mideast analysts say that despite what looks like Israel's de facto annexation of parts of the West Bank, a viable Palestinian state is possible, because both sides are willing to swap land.
But with each Israeli move deeper into the West Bank, a deal would be more difficult and a future border more unstable, said David Newman, a geographer at Israel's Ben Gurion University.
And if Israel goes ahead with a plan to drive its separation barrier from Jerusalem far into the West Bank, "there will be no peace, absolutely not," said Ahmed Qurei, the lead Palestinian negotiator.
Israel's intentions will become clear once Defense Minister Ehud Barak announces as early as tomorrow, whether he is going ahead with this barrier loop, which would move another 23 1/2 square miles of the West Bank to the "Israeli side."