According to a US diplomatic source, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is unlikely to return to the Middle East before the Annapolis peace conference, tentatively set for November 27. There had been speculation Rice might return to the region in a last-ditch effort to narrow the gaps between the sides. With less than two weeks left before the Maryland gathering, Israeli and Palestinian negotiating teams are continuing regular meetings in a effort to draft a joint statement of principles to be presented at Annapolis. But American sources said Washington would press ahead with the event even if the Israeli and Palestinians failed to compromise on the wording of a joint document. The source said the US viewed Annapolis as the start of a process, and that the joint statement was not "the be all and end all." Meanwhile, Defense Minister Ehud Barak said Tuesday he would welcome Syrian participation in Annapolis. Addressing a conference on terrorism at Herzliya's Interdisciplinary Center, Barak said, "Syrian participation can help to generate future peace talks" between Jerusalem and Damascus. Nevertheless, he warned, Syria "must understand that if it participates, the main subject at Annapolis is the Palestinians." Barak began his talk by toeing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's line, after recent criticism that the defense minister has been lukewarm over the Maryland parlay. "I support Annapolis with all my heart," said Barak, before launching into a series of caveats and thinly-veiled warnings toward his Palestinian counterparts. Barak reiterated that Israel would not make any moves until the Palestinians implemented the first stage of the road map peace plan, with emphasis on the disarming of terrorist groups and destruction of terror infrastructures in both the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. He also said Palestinians must renounce the right of return to Israel, and recognize Israel as a Jewish state - both conditions that PA negotiators have already said that they will not accept. Strategic Affairs Minister Avigdor Lieberman, the head of the Israel Beiteinu party, has written to Olmert demanding that the question of Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state be put on the agenda at next week's cabinet meeting. Lieberman wants to link such a Palestinian recognition to Israel recognizing a Palestinian state and Palestinian rights. The dispute with the Palestinians is not merely territorial but also touches on the identity of Israel as a Jewish and Zionist state, according to the letter. But senior Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat on Monday rejected Israel's demand to acknowledge Israel as a Jewish state. "There is no country in the world where religious and national identities are intertwined," Erekat told Radio Palestine. Erekat also said that when an agreement was signed, the Palestinians would demand that Israel commit in writing to releasing all Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails.