(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Syria's decided to attend the Annapolis conference because it had received a promise that the issue of the Golan Heights would be raised in the talks, Syrian Information Minister Mohsen Bilal said Sunday evening.
"Syria arrives at the Annapolis conference due to the fact that the conference's agenda will include the Palestinian issue, the withdrawal from the Golan Heights to the borders of June 4 1967 and the restoration of the peace process," Bilal told Al Jazeera a few hours after Damascus announced that it would be sending a delegate to the parley.
The Syrian official claimed that his country had received American assurances to that effect. "After Syria received a message this morning from the United States stating that the Golan Heights would be in the conference's itinerary, the Syrian leadership decided to participate in it."
When asked why Syria was sending a relatively low-ranking official, Deputy Foreign Minister Faysal Mekdad, while other participants from the Arab world were being represented by their foreign ministers, Bilal claimed that Foreign Minister Walid Muallem's had "prior commitments."
"The deputy foreign minister has filled many diplomatic posts, including that of Syria's ambassador to the UN," he said.
The Prime Minister's Office welcomed Syria's decision to participate in the parley, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's spokeswoman Miri Eisen said on Sunday afternoon following the announcement made by Syria's state-run news agency.
"Israel sees as a positive development the participation of a high-ranking Syrian official in the meetings in Annapolis," said Eisin shortly after she arrived with Olmert in Washington. "The meetings are clearly about the Israeli-Palestinian process, but could be the beginning of new avenues to peace in the Middle East."
The announcement came after Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said upon arriving in Washington DC that Syria would be allowed to mention the issue of the Golan Heights in a statement at Tuesday's parley, but the future of the northern plateau will not be discussed.
Livni said that over 40 states would participate in a workshop entitled "comprehensive peace" at Tuesday's plenary session. The countries will be free to bring up any issue they wish and the Syrians will likely mention the Golan, she said.
Earlier Sunday, Syrian parliament member Muhammad Habash told the Arabic-language American radio station Sawa that Syria's position on taking part in the conference had changed after the United States said that the parley's agenda would include discussion of the future of the Golan Heights.
It was not clear how his claims corresponded with Livni's statement, and whether Syria had received, as it demanded, a written commitment from the US to discuss the Golan at the parley.
Habash also did not say who would represent Syria at the parley or how high-ranked the representatives would be.
Meanwhile, MKs across the political spectrum responded to the news of possible Syrian involvement in the talks.
Meretz MK Ran Cohen said that making peace with Syria would prevent "the next war" and isolate Iran.
Meretz chairman Yossi Beilin said that Syria and Saudi Arabia's participation in the Annapolis conference created "high hopes" and that Olmert could no longer be satisfied with statements to the effect that the very existence of the summit was a success.
MK Gilad Erdan (Likud) said that Syria's participation in Annapolis was a "meaningless masquerade." Syria is part of the axis of evil, Erdan said, and supports terror groups.
Israel Beitenu MK Alex Miller said that the question of who participated in Annapolis was unimportant. What was important was the Palestinians' ability to stand by any agreements made at the peace parley, he said.
AP contributed to this report.
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