Olmert Assad 298.88.
(photo credit: AP [archive])
With little yet certain about what is to take place or come out of next week's meeting in Annapolis, or even who will attend, senior diplomatic sources said Monday that Syria would participate after being assured that "Syrian issues" will be addressed in some fashion at the meeting.
The Syrians have not yet made an announcement on this matter, but Syrian President Bashar Assad convened a high-level government meeting Monday night to discuss the issue. Syria has said that it would only attend if the Golan Heights were on the agenda.
Israeli diplomatic officials said that while Annapolis was a meeting that would focus on the Israeli-Palestinian bilateral track, "it could be a base for the discussion of further issues." The official said that if the Palestinian-Israeli track proved successful it would undoubtedly "impact on the whole Middle East."
The possibility of Syrian participation, as well as the level of other Arab participation, is likely to be discussed at a meeting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert will hold in Sharm e-Sheikh Tuesday with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. This meeting will come just days before a planned gathering of 12 members of the Arab League on Friday, where a decision is finally expected on who will attend the conference, and at what level.
One of the countries whose participation is seen as key to the success of the meeting is Saudi Arabia, and Quartet envoy Tony Blair is expected to travel there later this week.
Israeli officials, however, said that Blair's visit there likely had more to do with getting the Saudis to contribute financially to various projects in the PA than trying to convince them to go to Annapolis, something the US has been trying to do for months. Saudi financial support is considered very important in getting other Arab countries to also contribute to the various projects in the works to bolster the Palestinian economy, governing capabilities and security capacity.
While the Arab world grapples with who to send to the conference, Israeli and Palestinian negotiating teams, led by Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and former Palestinian prime minister Ahmed Qurei, will continue meeting to try to put together a joint statement to be issued at the conference.
The United States plans to issue as early as Tuesday official invitations to the conference. The invitations are to be sent by diplomatic cable to US embassies in the countries concerned, with instructions to Washington's ambassadors to present them to their host governments' foreign ministries, US officials said. They will ask that each nation send its highest-ranking appropriate official to Annapolis.
Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas met Monday for the last time before the Annapolis conference in an attempt to bridge gaps that remained between the Israeli and Palestinian positions regarding the statement.
A senior Israeli official said that "progress" was made on the statement, but it was still too early to say whether the two sides would agree to something before the meeting. If not, the official said, they would announce in Annapolis the relaunching of intensive negotiations. During the meeting the sides reportedly agreed on the role of the road map in the joint statement.
Meanwhile, a State Department spokesman said that the United States would offer proposals to bridge differences between Israelis and Palestinians as part of preparatory efforts for the Annapolis conference.
US State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said that "we are of course going to, where we can, help the sides bridge any differences in terms of their thinking, and do what we can to help them move along the pathway."
At the same time, he wouldn't specify the nature of those proposals and stressed that, "Ultimately these have to be efforts and a document that they are both comfortable with. Any sort of imposed solution upon the two sides with respect to a document is not going to be one that they're comfortable with, and will in some ways detract from the significance of the document."
An official announcement of the conference was expected Tuesday morning, along with an announcement of an agenda that will include a dinner for leaders from both sides with US President George W. Bush in Washington next Monday evening.
The first session of the event Tuesday in Annapolis is likely to focus exclusively on the Israeli-Palestinian issue, with later opportunities for broader discussions.
Earlier on Monday, at the cabinet meeting, Olmert made clear that the road map placed obligations on both sides, and admitted that Israel had not fulfilled its obligations, which include a settlement freeze and dismantling the settlement outposts. He said, however, that Israel would not allow a situation whereby it would have to make concessions, withdraw from territories and uproot settlements while the Palestinians did not fulfill their security requirements under the road map.
During the cabinet meeting, Olmert said that no agreement with the Palestinians would be reached if they did not recognize Israel as a Jewish state. The question, he said, was when this issue would be raised.
He also said that it was clear that Israel would have to make far-reaching territorial concessions. "Everyone who understands that we are going toward an agreement with the Palestinians understands that the territorial reality that exists today will not exist in the future," he said.
Olmert added that Israel could not afford to wait a few years before beginning the process with the Palestinians that would be launched at Annapolis, because there was no guarantee that the international or regional situation would be more favorable to Israel at that time.
Strategic Affairs Minister Avigdor Lieberman spoke out against the Annapolis process, saying that the "minimum that the Palestinians want is more than the maximum that even [Meretz head Yossi] Beilin would be willing to give." He said that there was a problematic asymmetry in Abbas's comment that he represented all the Palestinian people, but could not do anything against the terrorism from Gaza. "The road map also applies to Gaza," he said.
During the meeting, sharp words were exchanged between Livni and Vice Premier Haim Ramon, with Ramon saying that Livni - who is heading Israel's negotiating team - did not properly understand the negotiating process. Livni - in an apparent reference to Ramon's dovish stance on Jerusalem - then responded that "there is no need to throw the keys to the other side, close one's eyes, and hope everything will be okay. That is not responsible, because there were those who created the impression that the Palestinians would get assets that Israel cannot give."
AP contributed to this report.
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