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Syria has rejected the latest appeals from Israel to attend the US-sponsored Annapolis peace conference and will only go if the return of the Golan Heights is on the agenda, the country's deputy leader said in London on Tuesday.
Deputy Prime Minister Abdullah Dardari said Syria will not budge in its insistence that its participation in the conference in Annapolis, Maryland, hinges on the opportunity to discuss the Golan Heights, a strategic plateau Israel captured from Syria in the 1967 Six Day War and later annexed.
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said on Sunday they wanted Syria to participate in the conference, but only on condition they set aside Syrian-Israeli issues.
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak on Tuesday urged Syria to attend, saying the meeting could be a launching pad for new talks between the two foes.
Following a meeting with President Shimon Peres on Tuesday, Olmert said Syrian participation in the conference "would be fitting," adding that it was scheduled to take place during the last week of November. Olmert expressed hope that, should talks with the Palestinians be successful, it would pave the way for a similar process with Syria.
But in an interview in London, Dardari rejected refused the offer. "We have occupied lands - and that is the Golan Heights. For Syria to attend any such meeting requires that the Golan Heights issue is clearly on the agenda."
"We have not received any official invitation and a formal invitation should be attached to an agenda that clearly states the Golan Heights issue will be discussed at that meeting, Dardari said.
Meanwhile, Peres on Tuesday expressed optimism as to the conference's chances of success. In a press conference following a meeting with Olmert, Peres said the talks were "different from Oslo, when the Americans were not involved. No one is forcing Israel's hand today, or doubting its desire for peace."
During the press conference, Olmert said that after the Annapolis parley, negotiations with the Palestinians would begin on all core issues, adding that implementation would be based on the road map peace plan. "Both sides are obligated to take certain steps. We are prepared to fulfill all of our obligations in order to move forward," he said.
Peres said the conference would be a great opportunity. "I've had a chance to speak with Arab leaders and have felt a spirit of trust and optimism. This isn't a bad start at all, better than one could have hoped for," he said, adding that this did not mean everything would be solved instantly.
Peres said he welcomed the coordination between what he called "the deciding triangle": Washington, Jerusalem and Ramallah. "Anyone who takes a good look at the statements can see it," he said.
Olmert added that invitations to participants had not yet been sent out.
Peres and Olmert also addressed the president's upcoming official visit to Ankara.
Turkey "could play a vital role in the peace process," Peres said. He noted that Turkey had expressed interest in establishing industrial zones in Jenin, Jericho and Tarkumiya. Olmert called the trip, the first time an Israeli president would address the Turkish parliament, "historic".
During his visit, Peres is also expected to conduct joint discussions with the Turkish prime minister and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.