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Arab League governments were reluctant Monday to support US President Bush's call for an international conference to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, with top diplomats stressing the importance of making the Arab peace initiative key to any talks.
Meeting in Cairo to build a response to the US proposal, the Arab League welcomed what it called "the positive elements" in the proposed peace conference. But it said the talks should be "all inclusive" - a reference to other Arab-Israeli conflicts, mainly with Syria.
On July 16, George W. Bush proposed an international gathering later this year to restart long-stalled Palestinian-Israeli peace talks.
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US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is due to discuss the initiative with a group of Arab foreign ministers in Egypt on Tuesday during a four-day tour of the region with US Defense Secretary Robert Gates.
The League "supports convening a meeting or a conference with the participation of all parties concerned with the peace process, in order to launch talks on all tracks," it said in a statement Monday.
Syria's foreign minister, Walid al-Moallam, stayed away from the meeting, and the Syrian envoy at the talks stormed out in protest on Monday.
Delegates told the Associated Press that Syrian ambassador Youssef al-Ahmed left the meeting to protest the fact Arabs were even agreeing to discuss Bush's proposal. The suggested conference will "liquidate the Palestinian cause," delegates quoted him as saying.
The delegates required anonymity because of the sensitivity of the talks.
"I expressed my country's reservation to formulating any kind of welcome to Bush's initiative," al-Ahmed also told reporters.
The League's Secretary-General, Amr Moussa, later told reporters that Syria's participation is essential to the success of the proposed conference.
"We expect a settlement, or at least a revival of the peace process on all tracks," Moussa said.
"What is required is to solve the Arab-Israeli conflict, and Syria is part of this (conflict) and has its land occupied," Moussa said. "Naturally there should be a withdrawal from the Syrian land," he said.
Moussa said the foreign ministers meeting with Rice on Tuesday will make clear to the US administration that Arabs want the conference to cover all outstanding problems with Israel, not just Palestinian issues.
"If you want an international conference, these are our conditions," he said.
A day earlier, Moussa also called for the conference to be sponsored by either the United Nations or the Quartet of Middle East mediators, made up of the UN, United States, European Union and Russia.
Some Arabs, such a Saudi Foreign Minister Saudi al-Faisal, have previously voiced serious doubts about the conference. "We are not after photo-opportunities," al-Faisal said.
President Bush has said his call was a "moment of choice" for the Middle East, and US officials have expressed hope that moderate Arab countries that don't have diplomatic relations with Israel would attend. This was seen as an apparent reference to Saudi Arabia.
The League remarks on Monday seem to reflect widespread Arab concern that the conference could generate a flurry of diplomatic posturing rather than tangible results.
Some Arab commentators have also accused Bush of proposing the meeting to deflect attention from his administration's problems in Iraq.
Besides discussing the potential summit, Arab foreign ministers on Monday also assessed the results of last week's talks between Israeli officials and Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit and his Jordanian counterpart, Abdul-Ilah Khatib.
On a visit to Israel, the ministers formally introduced the Arab peace-for-land plan, which was relaunched at a League summit in Saudi Arabia in March and envisions full Arab recognition of Israel in return for its withdrawal from lands captured in the Six Day War.
The League said Monday the ministers would continue their mission.
Rice is scheduled to meet with foreign ministers from Egypt, Jordan, Bahrain, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates in the Red Sea resort town of Sharm el-Sheik to rally support for Bush's proposed conference.
Some of Washington's close Arab allies have welcomed the Bush proposal but stressed the importance of making the Arab peace initiative key to any talks.
Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, who now heads an emergency government based in the West Bank, has welcomed the US proposal. Hamas, which refuses to recognize Israel and remains isolated in the Gaza Strip, rejected Bush's offer.