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(photo credit: AP/H.O. Jordan Royal Palace)
Most Arab countries remain skeptical about next week's US-sponsored peace conference in Annapolis, and that's why they still haven't confirmed their participation, Arab diplomats in Cairo said Wednesday.
An Arab League ministerial committee scheduled to meet in Cairo on Thursday will try to reach a unified Arab position on the conference.
Also Thursday, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak is expected to host a mini Arab summit in Sharm e-Sheikh to discuss the upcoming summit.
The summit will bring together Jordan's King Abdullah II and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. The two held talks in Amman on Wednesday to coordinate positions ahead of the Annapolis gathering.
The diplomats told The Jerusalem Post that Syria and Saudi Arabia could also send representatives to the summit in Sharm e-Sheikh.
But the two countries are currently preoccupied with the looming crisis over the presidential election in Lebanon and are unlikely to attend the summit.
According to the diplomats, Mubarak has taken upon himself the task of persuading the Syrians and Saudis to participate in the Annapolis conference. But both Damascus and Riyadh have expressed reservations about the conference's agenda, they added.
The Syrians have made it clear that they will attend the conference only if its agenda includes the Golan Heights.
The Saudis, meanwhile, have said they will participate if the agenda clearly deals with fundamental issues that would lead to a full Israeli withdrawal to the pre-1967 borders.
In addition, the Saudi and Syrian leaders have serious doubts about Abbas's ability to deliver at a time when the Palestinians are embroiled in a fierce power struggle between his Fatah faction and Hamas.
"Does Abbas really have a mandate from his people to reach an agreement on core issues like Jerusalem, borders and refugees?" asked one diplomat. "Even if he does return with an agreement, will he be able to implement it or sell it to the majority of Palestinians? The Saudis and Syrians are concerned that Annapolis will only deepen divisions among the Palestinians and escalate the Fatah-Hamas crisis."
Middle East envoy Tony Blair arrived in Riyadh Wednesday for talks aimed at persuading the Saudis to accept the invitation to Annapolis. Earlier in the week, US President George W. Bush phoned the Saudi monarch, King Abdullah bin Abdel Aziz, to invite Saudi Arabia to the conference.
Bush also phoned Abbas on Wednesday and told him that the upcoming conference was a major step toward the establishment of an independent Palestinian state, said Abbas's spokesman, Nabil Abu Rudaineh.
"Saudi Arabia and Syria hold the key to participation of the Arabs in the peace conference," said one diplomat. "If these two countries say they are going, then the rest of the Arabs will follow suit."
Even if the Arab countries do decide to attend the conference, it's not clear whether they would send senior officials or suffice with low-level government representatives.
A senior official at the Arab League offices in Cairo said the fear among most Arabs was that the conference would be exploited to push for normalization with Israel even before an agreement was reached with the Palestinians.
"The major concern is that the Arabs will come under pressure to sign separate peace treaties while ignoring the Palestinian issue," he added. "Add to this that the Arab regimes are afraid of the reaction of the Arab street, which is still not ready for normalization with Israel."
Palestinian writer and political analyst Saher al-Aqra said the Arabs don't sense a real change in the Israeli and American positions.
"That's why the US invitation has been received with skepticism in the Arab world," Aqra said. "There are those who believe that this is a US attempt to create an anti-Iran alliance, while others argue that the Americans and Israelis are trying to cash in on the Fatah-Hamas power struggle by assuming that this is the appropriate time to exploit Fatah's weakness."
But respected columnist Rami Khouri was one of the few Arab journalists to advise the Arabs not to boycott the conference.
The Arabs "should use Annapolis as a powerful stage from which to speak to the world, including the Israeli people who will be watching closely," Khouri wrote in Lebanon's Daily Star newspaper. "We should use it principally as a venue to articulate clearly our desire to negotiate a permanent peace, based on the 2002 Arab peace plan, and expose once again the vacuous and insincere nature of the Israeli and American positions."
The Annapolis conference, Khouri added, "is not a serious peacemaking endeavor, but it is a spectacular stage that the Arabs can use to challenge Israel, the US and the world to make peace sincerely, rather than through the stealth, evasion and imprecision that defines the current mist-filled road to the gathering.
"It is hard to generate any real anticipation from a process in which the principal Israeli and Palestinian parties are politically weak, the American hosts are imprecise and hesitant, the supporting Arab state actors are playing hard to get, and the agenda is as clear as mushroom soup," he wrote.
"Those are all reasons why the Arabs invited to go to Annapolis should accept the invitation without reservations, go with enthusiasm and confidence, and use the gathering as a stage to demonstrate the Arab will for a fair and negotiated peace. If Annapolis is a confused and murky process, the Arab world should respond to it with clarity and confidence," he asserted.
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