(photo credit: AP [file])
In a flurry of diplomatic activity ahead of a key US-sponsored Mideast conference, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak said Wednesday he will be holding talks with the leaders of Jordan and the Palestinians in the Red Sea resort town of Sharm el-Sheik.
Efforts to bring Saudi King Abdullah and Syrian President Bashar Assad to the Thursday gathering to make an Arab mini-summit failed apparently due to the ongoing political crisis in Lebanon in which the two countries back opposing sides.
Mubarak was organizing the gathering ahead of an important Arab League ministerial meeting in Cairo in which Arab countries are expected to announce whether they will attend Monday's conference in Annapolis, Maryland.
For its part, Egypt confirmed its attendance to the Annapolis meeting in a statement Wednesday saying Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit would attend "within the framework of Egypt's enduring keenness to extend any possible support for the Palestinian cause."
The Israelis and Palestinians are expected to present a joint statement on resuming peace talks at Annapolis, yet less than a week before their delegations are to arrive in the United States, the document exists only in vague form.
Following talks in Amman, Jordan on Wednesday with King Abdullah II, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas told reporters that there is a document under discussion which could be finalized later "especially, that we are in the last hour of the negotiations, and it is normal that we face some problems and obstacles."
For his part, the king urged Israel to adopt positive positions which would lead to a lasting and comprehensive solution in the region and called on Israel to deal with the Syrian and Lebanese tracks, especially the issue of the Golan Heights, and seize the opportunity to solve the Arab-Israeli conflict.
In the Arab world, there has been great suspicion of the conference, with many nations questioning the Bush administration's ability to forge peace, particularly between two leaders weakened by internal political turmoil.
After initially expressing skepticism over the conference, Mubarak has since endorsed it and worked on hammering out an Arab consensus ahead of the talks.
Mubarak's spokesman Suleiman Awad said Mubarak would meet Thursday with the Jordanian monarch and Abbas in Sharm. He would likely hold separate talks with each, though there could be a three-way summit, Awad said, dismissing earlier reports that Syria and Saudi Arabia would attend as well.
An Arab diplomat said Egypt had sought to bring in the Saudi and Syrian leaders as well, but the two were too involved in Lebanon's presidential succession crisis to journey to Sharm el-Sheik. The diplomat spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press.
So far, Egypt, Israel and the Palestinians are the only Mideast players that have announced their attendance at the US conference in Annapolis, though Jordan is also sure to attend. The two main question marks are Saudi Arabia and Syria.
The kingdom, under intense US pressure to attend, has not committed to sending a high-level delegation, holding out for a promise that the conference will set a timetable for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations to tackle the toughest issues of the conflict.
Syria has said it will only attend if the conference also addresses its track of the peace process with Israel, centered on its demands for the return of the Golan Heights.