Syria to be invited to peace talks

US secretary of state expected to unveil her plans for a Middle East conference.

    Blair, right, will present his first report since
    becoming the Quartet envoy in June [AFP]
    Members of an Arab League panel that includes Syria and Saudi Arabia will be invited to a Middle East peace conference later this year, according to a senior US official.

    Condoleezza Rice, the US secretary of state, reportedly planned to outline the details of the planned conference at a meeting of representatives of the diplomatic group known as the Quartet on Sunday.

    The group - which includes the European Union, Russia, the United States and the United Nations - will also hear the first report from Tony Blair, the Quartet's new special envoy and former British prime minister. 

    An official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Washington would invite the Israelis and Palestinians, their neighbours, the Quartet negotiators and the Arab League follow-up committee from a meeting expected to be held in the United States in November to the conference.

    The Palestinian Authority, Syria, Lebanon, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt are on that committee.

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    Only the last two have full relations with Israel, while Syria and Lebanon are deeply estranged from the Jewish state.

    Rice has insisted that the conference would be more than a simple photo opportunity but several Arab states, including Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, have said they see no point in meeting unless there are clear goals and a realistic chance of meeting them.

    "The goal here is to take this as a step to end the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians and help to bring about comprehensive peace in the Middle East," an official told Reuters news agency.

    The meeting comes against a backdrop of calls by George Bush, the US President, for a Middle East peace conference aimed at jumpstarting the Israeli-Palestinian dialogue.

    The Quartet issued a "roadmap" for achieving Israeli-Palestinian peace in 2003, but the three-stage plan that should have led to the creation of a Palestinian state by 2005 has languished.

    Iftar diplomacy

    After the meeting, Quartet members are to sit down on Sunday night with representatives of the Arab League at an "iftar" dinner, the evening meal for breaking the daily fast during the Islamic month of Ramadan.

    Al Jazeera's John Terrett in New York said that Blair's mission in the region had been severely restricted by Washington's insistence that he does not deal directly with Israel.

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    "Blair's brief is only to look at the political and economic issues of the Palestinians at the moment. The job he is going to have to try to do to day is convince the Quartet to enhance his mandate," he said.

    The former British prime minister has been travelling the region since he was appointed in June.

    Earlier this month, Jordan's King Abdullah told Blair that final status issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict should be a top priority at the peace conference.

    Abdullah said his country, a close US ally, "supports all efforts by the Quartet to bring closer the points of view between the Palestinians and Israelis ahead of the peace meeting called for by US President George W Bush".

    Egypt's foreign minister warned that if Bush's planned Middle East peace conference fails, extremists among the Palestinians could be strengthened.

    Speaking at the Council on Foreign Relations, an influential think-tank in New York, Ahmed Aboul Gheit said it was vital for Washington to do as much preparation as it did before the 1978 Camp David accords that led to a peace treaty between Israel and Egypt.

    "If before the conference there will be a document that would convince people that both of them are able to do something, then you will find everybody jumping in and trying to help," Aboul Gheit said.

    "If, on the other hand, we would not see that situation, then by the end of the year it will be a very difficult situation, for the Palestinians mainly, and the extremist elements among the Palestinians would win the day."

    Olmert-Abbas talks

    Meanwhile, Ehud Olmert, the Israeli prime minister, and Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, have held a series of talks in recent months in a bid to hammer out an agreement before the conference, in order to revive peace negotiations which have been dormant for seven years.

    On Sunday, Israel approved the release of 90 Palestinian prisoners as a goodwill gesture to Abbas' in an effort to speed up the peace process.

    The prisoners are allegedly all members of Abbas' Fatah party from the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

    Olmert is scheduled fly to France and the UK in October for meetings with the countries' leaders ahead of the planned Middle East conference, a senior Israeli official said on Sunday.

    "Prime Minister Olmert will go on a brief visit to London and Paris in order to hold talks with President Nicolas Sarkozy and Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who have recently taken office," the official said.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and agencies


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