Syria to join US-led Middle East conference

Syria said on Sunday it would attend a U.S.-led conference aimed at launching talks to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, giving another boost to U.S. efforts to enlist wide Arab support a new peace drive.Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas arrived in Washington two days before the meeting in Annapolis, Maryland. But all sides have played down the prospect of any breakthrough at the conference or afterwards.

Ending weeks of uncertainty, the official Syrian news agency said Syria “has accepted the American invitation and will send an official delegation headed by Deputy Prime Minister Fayssal Mekdad.”

A spokeswoman for Olmert welcomed the announcement, calling the decision to send a high-ranking member of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government a positive move.

The spokeswoman, Miri Eisin, said the Israeli-Palestinian track would remain the main focus of the conference, although Syria’s participation “could open additional avenues to peace in the Middle East.”

Syria, Israel’s neighbor to the north and a long-time foe, had insisted the meeting also deal with the future of the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights captured in the 1967 Middle East war.

Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, speaking to reporters on Olmert’s flight to Washington, said the issue could be raised in a forum at the conference in which “comprehensive peace in the Middle East” would be discussed.

Israel and Syria last held peace negotiations in 2000, in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, but could not reach a deal on the Golan, which overlooks the Sea of Galilee, the Jewish state’s main reservoir.

ARAB PARTICIPATION

“We consider the Annapolis conference a launching pad for final status negotiations that will lead to the realization

of the Palestinian people’s dream of establishing a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital,” Abbas aide Nabil Abu Rdainah told Reuters after the Palestinian leader’s arrival.

But Abbas has lost control of the Gaza Strip to Hamas Islamists and Olmert is unpopular with voters, not least due to corruption accusations, and faces opposition to concessions within his coalition. President George W. Bush has little over a year left in power.

In the run-up to the conference, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators have so far failed to agree on a joint document on how to proceed with negotiations.

Abu Rdainah said they would meet again in Washington on Sunday and Livni told reporters on Olmert’s plane she expected the two sides to agree on a document to “launch the (peace) process, not solve (the conflict).”

The mere attendance at talks with Israel of Arab states like Saudi Arabia and Syria, which have had cold-to-hostile relations with the Jewish state, is likely to be hailed in Israel and Washington as a major achievement at Annapolis.

Livni said the Arab presence boosted chances for success, and that without support from other Arabs, there was not “a single Palestinian” who could reach a deal with Israel.

The prospect of better ties with Arab neighbors could also help Olmert, whose governing coalition includes right-wing partners, sell any deal. 

At Annapolis, Israel and the Palestinians are expected to reaffirm commitments under the U.S.-backed “road map” to peace, agreed in 2003.

Israel has made any final deal conditional on Abbas carrying out a commitment to rein in militants. Palestinians demand Israel fulfill its promise under the plan to halt “settlement activity” in the occupied West Bank.

The Annapolis meeting will be held seven years after a summit at Camp David hosted by Bush’s predecessor Bill Clinton collapsed and a Palestinian uprising erupted.

Faced with the legacy of an unpopular war in Iraq, the conference will give Bush a chance for diplomatic success in the Middle East — an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal all sides say they hope to achieve before he leaves office in January 2009.

Olmert told reporters on his plane he hoped Annapolis would launch serious negotiations on “all the core issues that will result in a solution of two states for two peoples.”

Non-Arab Iran, which the United States has ostracized for developing nuclear technology, has not been invited.

Iran said on Sunday the conference would erode Palestinian rights. Hamas’s armed wing vowed to keep fighting Israel and said any concessions would be tantamount to “treason.”

In Jerusalem, Israeli police set up roadblocks to try to avert violence after a security alert. Israeli troops killed three Palestinian gunmen in raids in Gaza and the West Bank.

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