(photo credit: AP [file])
Syria has tentatively decided not to attend the upcoming Annapolis conference, the London-based Arab daily al-Hayat reported Thursday. The reason is reportedly due to the omission of the Golan Heights issue from the summit's agenda.
The al-Hayat report comes despite clear US signals in recent days that if Syria wants, it can raise the Golan Heights issue at the meeting, reversing the earlier-held American position that the Annapolis conference will deal exclusively with the Israeli-Palestinian issue.
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told reporters Wednesday that other disputed issues could be raised at Annapolis, including the Golan Heights. Indeed, one of the three sessions to be held at the conference's plenary session on Tuesday will deal with "comprehensive peace." Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs David Welch said at a press briefing in Washington on Tuesday that Syria had been invited to the conference and "if they come... we will not turn off the microphone for anyone."
Syria, as well as Saudi Arabia, were expected to make official announcements on Thursday regarding their participation, while Syria's final decision to skip the parley is expected to be dependent on backing from the Arab League, which will gather Thursday in Cairo to discuss the Arab position vis-Ã -vis Annapolis.
Welch said that the Annapolis meeting "represented an opportunity for all those who would like to make meaningful steps toward peace to come and represent their views. You know, we're the United States, we're affording a platform here for responsible opinion, and they're entitled to express their views and their national interests as they see them."
Israeli officials, meanwhile, reiterated Jerusalem's position that the meeting was about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. However, one official said Annapolis "could lead to other things. This isn't about Syrian-Israel relations, and if they come, they are coming to a meeting about an initiative with the Palestinians. But we also hope that the process leads to a process with the Syrians."
Channel 1 reported Wednesday night that Jordan's King Abdullah II, who made a rare visit to Damascus on Sunday and met with Syrian President Bashar Assad, delivered a message to Assad from the US and France that if he would send a representative to Annapolis, not hinder the Israeli-Palestinian process, and not stand in the way of the election of a president in Lebanon, then the US and France would neither work to isolate Syria and bring down the Assad regime nor press to appoint an anti-Syrian president in Lebanon.
The security cabinet, meanwhile, met Wednesday for its last meeting before Annapolis and heard various assessments from the security establishment regarding what would happen afterwards.
The bottom line assessment was that the Annapolis meeting was important, but that any agreement thereafter must be negotiated carefully, and that implementation should not be carried out until the Palestinians assert true security control over the West Bank and Gaza as called for under the road map - a process that could take years.
The security cabinet ministers reportedly heard assessments stating that a failure to go to Annapolis would strengthen Hamas and quite possibly lead to the downfall of PA President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salaam Fayad. This would also lead to an increased call around the world to abandon the two-state vision, which would - with the failure to pull off Annapolis - seem impossible to reach, in favor of looking at a one-state solution with the Palestinians incorporated into a binational state.
Vice Premier Haim Ramon, who locked horns Monday with Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, exchanged harsh words with a colleague again on Wednesday - this time, Defense Minister Ehud Barak.
In an apparent reference to criticism Ramon had voiced that Israel was not willing to make enough concessions to the Palestinians before the Annapolis summit, Barak said that Israel could not be blamed for any possible failure of the talks on grounds that it hadn't come far enough in the Palestinians' direction.
There are those, he said, "even around this table, contributing to a situation where we will be blamed for being obstinate because we didn't give the Palestinians enough."
Ramon responded that if Israel offered the Palestinians "half of what we offered at Camp David [in 2000, with Barak as prime minister], but in a calculated and responsible way, we would be able to come to the conference with an agreement on the 'core issues' already in hand."
While the security cabinet, which meets every Wednesday, will not meet again before the conference, Olmert is holding intensive meetings with his aides and top security officials to prepare for the conference that will include two private meetings with US President George W. Bush, and a trilateral meeting together with Bush and Abbas.
Israeli and Palestinian negotiation teams continued to work Wednesday evening on drawing up a joint statement that would be read out after the trilateral meeting in Annapolis next Tuesday, but as of press time there was no announcement that they had made any headway.
After that Bush-Olmert-Abbas meeting next Tuesday morning, the representatives from all countries present at the conference (the US invited the foreign ministers from 40 states) will meet in three sessions and discuss "economic development in the PA," "institutional reform and capacity building," and, finally, "comprehensive peace."
Olmert and Abbas are both due to meet privately with Bush the day before the actual meeting in Annapolis, as well as the day after. A meeting of the Quartet - the US, EU, Russia and the UN - will be held Monday, followed by a dinner, where Bush is expected to deliver some brief remarks, hosted by Rice.
In addition to meeting with Bush and Rice, Olmert is also expected to meet Vice President Dick Cheney in a meeting that will likely focus on Iran.
The US is currently waiting to see which countries will attend the conference, and at what level. Sixteen countries with whom Israel has no diplomatic ties were invited. Those countries are Algeria, Bahrain, Indonesia, Iraq, Lebanon Malaysia, Morocco, Oman, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, the United Arab Emirates and Yemen.
One senior official in the Prime Minister's Office said the inclusion of these countries in the conference is highly significant because by attending they will show open support for a bilateral Israel-Palestinian track, and send a strong message that they oppose "the extremists" who don't want to see any such negotiations get off the ground, let alone succeed.
Olmert is scheduled to fly to Washington Saturday night, and Livni is expected to join him on his flight. Barak, however, is prevented by law from flying on the same plane - the prime minister and defense minister cannot fly together - and is slated to fly to the US separately.
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