ramiro cibrian-uzal 88.
(photo credit: )
As Damascus sent out noncommittal signals Tuesday about whether it will attend a US-sponsored Middle East meeting later this year, a senior European diplomat said Syria's answer could go a long way in determining the future of the peace process.
"This is very good news," EU Ambassador to Israel Ramiro Cibrian-Uzal said at a press briefing, referring to US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's oblique statement Monday that Syria would be invited to the meeting. Cibrian-Uzal questioned whether a "peace conference" without Syria would be serious, saying that whether the Syrians accept would "be revealing of the health of the peace process and the chances to go ahead successfully."
But in Damascus, Syrian Information Minister Mohsen Bilal made clear that his government was in no hurry to decide. Agence France Presse, in a report from Damascus, quoted Bilal as saying, "Syria will decide on whether to participate after it receives an invitation."
Bilal said the conference must be focused on "the imperatives for a just and comprehensive peace," such as the creation of an independent Palestinian state, the right of return for Palestinian refugees and the return of the Golan Heights to Syria, according to the report.
"The United States and Israel are very mistaken if they are trying with this meeting to bring about normalization" between Syria and Israel, he reportedly said.
Also Tuesday, Hamas called on Saudi Arabia and other nations not to attend the conference, the first time it has appealed directly to Arab states to stay away. It also warned Arab countries against offering concessions to Israel.
Hamas said in a statement it feared the conference would be a way for Arabs to establish relations with Israel.
Hamas "warns against the fall meeting becoming a new door for capitulation to be offered by the negotiators, and a door to normalization," the statement read. "We urge our Arab brothers not to go down this dark tunnel, and we appeal especially to Saudi Arabia not to participate in this conference."
Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries have said they would only attend if concrete results would be achieved.
Western diplomatic officials speculated that Syria would try to leverage America's interest in seeing it at the conference into diplomatic gains, such as US mediation and backing for Israeli-Syrian negotiations.
Sources in the Prime Minister's Office, however, said all statements made by Rice and senior US officials in recent days indicated that even with Syrian participation in the conference, its focus would still be on providing international and regional support for bilateral Israeli-PA negotiations leading to a two-state solution to the Palestinian issue, and not on a regional peace settlement.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, meanwhile, are expected to meet early next week and discuss how the negotiating teams that have been set up to draft a joint statement to be issued at the international conference will work.
The Israeli team is made up of Olmert's chief of staff, Yoram Turbowicz, his foreign policy adviser Shalom Turgeman, Foreign Ministry director-general Aharon Abramovitch and the head of the political-military bureau at the Defense Ministry, Amos Gilad.
The Palestinian team consists of former PA prime minister Ahmed Qurei, negotiator Saeb Erekat, Abbas adviser Yasser Abed Rabbo and a less well known figure, Akram Haniyeh, who served previously as a political adviser to Yasser Arafat.
Rice, in an interview with Reuters on Monday, said, "A lot depends on what happens in the bilateral track in the next weeks," and that these talks would go a long way in determining whether negotiations could start after the international conference.
"For the first time in a long time, the Palestinian-Israeli track is moving. It may not be moving as rapidly as people would like. It has a character of being still a set of informal discussions rather than negotiations. But step by step, from where they were in February after the Mecca agreement, they've come a very, very long way. They are now discussing these issues, these core issues, for the first time since 2000," Rice said.
Cibrian-Uzal said the Olmert-Abbas meetings of the last few months had produced "informal" progress on six key issues: Jerusalem, refugees, borders, water, security and freedom of access, and that the challenge now for the negotiating teams was to "reflect these understandings on a piece of paper" that would be sanctioned at the US-sponsored conference. That meeting, he said, echoing comments made a day earlier by Quartet envoy Tony Blair, would then be a "stepping stone" to full-scale peace negotiations.
Abbas, who met Monday with US President George W. Bush in Washington, said the international conference would be held in mid-November and should deal with issues of substance that would lead to full negotiations on the permanent status that would lead to a permanent peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.
Abbas's characterization of the planned meeting was, however, significantly different than the way Olmert described it Monday to the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. Olmert told the MKs that the meeting should not be called a "peace conference," and described it as a "short international meeting intended to give international encouragement to the process that we initiated with the Palestinians."
He said the meeting's goal was to increase support for Abbas on the Palestinian street and to deepen Israel's ties with moderate Arab countries.
"We don't need to build exaggerated expectations that tomorrow there will be an accord," Olmert said. "But statements made in an international forum by a man perceived as the leader of the Palestinian people have a certain weight. It's not an alternative to implementation, but it could lead to a process."
AP contributed to this report.