Israel and its US ally have said Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia who do not have ties to Israel should involve themselves in talks with the Jewish state as a goodwill gesture.

"We welcome this initiative," Prince Saud said at a news conference with US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

Olmert's office responded by saying that Israel hopes "many Arab countries will attend this international meeting, including Saudi Arabia".
 
Jacky Rowland, Al Jazeera's correspondant in Jerusalem, said: "This is potentially a huge diplomatic breakthrough for the Arab peace process.

"For Israel, in particular, it's a big step - something, at last for Olmert, that his goverment has achieved."
 
Major breakthrough
 
A meeting between Israeli and Saudi representatives would be a major diplomatic breakthrough.

Though Israel and Saudi Arabia are both US allies, representatives of the countries have never officially met and Saudi Arabia has never recognised Israel.

Arab foreign ministers welcomed the US idea of a Middle East peace conference, though Syria objected saying it could betray the Palestinian cause.

They said the conference must include all parties concerned, must aim to revive negotiations between Israel and all its neighbours and must be based on previous peace talks.

Those conditions could thwart US or Israeli attempts to keep Syria out, or Palestinian Islamist group Hamas.

"I said before that we are interested in a peace conference that deals with the substantive matters of peace, the issues of real substance and not form or insubstantive issues," the Saudi foreign minister said.

"If that does so, it becomes of great interest for Saudi Arabia and should we then get an invitation from the Secretary [Rice] to attend that conference we will look very closely and very hard at attending the conference."

Abu Marzouk, deputy head of Hamas' political bureau, said: "If they expect peace to come through conferences that exclude Hamas, they are wrong.

"The attempt to push Hamas out of the picture and make a peace between Abbas and Israel will fail," he said.

"There is no choice for the Palestinians except to continue with the resistance, and all this talk about a peace conference is, in short, futile," he said.

No normalisation

Saudi Arabi said the potential upcoming
conference must listen to all sides [AFP]
The Saudi-promoted Arab peace plan calls for Israel to withdraw from land captured in 1967, including Arab East Jerusalem, the creation of a Palestinian state and a "just solution" for Palestinian refugees.

Saudi Arabia has said publicly it will not offer Israel "normalisation" of ties before a final peace deal.

Breaking Saudi barriers to contact would be a major diplomatic coup for Israel, because of the prestige Saudi Arabia wields as home to Islam's holiest shrines.

But Riyadh will be wary of opposition from clerics and Islamist activists.

Al-Qaeda fighters launched a campaign to topple the US-allied monarchy in 2003 and Riyadh fears that Saudis fighting in Iraq could return to wreak havoc.

Mission to Iraq

Prince al-Faisal said his country, under pressure from Washington to back the Iraqi government, would open an embassy in Baghdad for the first time since the 2003 invasion that brought down Saddam Hussein, eventually bringing Iranian-allied Shia Muslims to power.

"To support the government of Iraq ... we decided to send a delegation to see how to establish our embassy in Baghdad.

"The delegation will comprise diplomats from the foreign ministry, but I will not disclose when they will head to Iraq."

Rice welcomed the announcement. "This is something that we have encouraged ... It is an important step," she said.

Prince al-Faisal said: "The kingdom is keen to continue supporting regional and international efforts to achieve security and stability in Iraq ... But the success of these efforts hinges on achieving social justice and national unity among Iraqis of all ethnic and religious groups," he said.

"This places big and historic responsibilities on the Iraqi government to achieve these goals away from external interference."