Arab states debate improving Israel ties

Countries reportedly discuss opening embassies in Israel if settlement, fence construction frozen.

arab league 298.88 (photo credit: Associated Press)
arab league 298.88
(photo credit: Associated Press)
Arab nations could be willing to improve diplomatic relations with Israel if advancements are made in the peace process with the Palestinians, Israel Radio quoted Al Jazeera as saying Thursday. According to an offer reportedly taking shape in Cairo, Arab states would warm relations with Jerusalem and several of them, including of Qatar and Oman, would even reopen their embassies in Israel, if Israel freezes settlement and security fence construction. Arab League foreign ministers were meeting in the Egyptian capital to try to develop a consensus position on the US-planned Middle East conference set to take place in Annapolis next week. Afterwards, Arab invitees, who also include the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Yemen and others, were expected to announce whether they would attend and at what level. Egypt, Jordan and the Palestinians sought to sell Arab nations on the conference Thursday. Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak held a mini-summit with the leaders of Jordan and the Palestinians in this Red Sea resort, bringing together the strongest Arab supporters of next week's conference. Two major hold-outs remain: US ally Saudi Arabia and Syria, which are so far unconvinced the conference will bring significant peace commitments from Israel. The Saudis want a firm timetable for negotiations to cover the important issues of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, while the Syrians are pressing for Annapolis to address the Golan Heights. Egypt insisted Thursday that Annapolis could mark a major breakthrough, opening the door for a possible final Israeli-Palestinian agreement in the next year. "It is clear that President [George W.] Bush and the current American administration is achieving progress that will pave the way to the establishment of the two states and an independent Palestinian state within the next year and before the end of Bush's term," Mubarak's spokesman Suleiman Awad said. Saudi Arabia, a top US ally, has not said whether it will attend or, if it does, whether it will send its foreign minister as Washington hopes. On Thursday, the kingdom's crown prince, Prince Sultan, said he wished the conference success, saying the issue of "the kingdom's participation in the conference will take into consideration the current circumstances," the Saudi state news agency reported. Egypt was for months skeptical of the Annapolis conference, expressing doubts it would achieve any success. But under intense US lobbying and after a meeting this week with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Mubarak has become a strong advocate. Egypt jumped the gun ahead of other Arab countries and has already announced its foreign minister will attend. Jordan's king and Abbas also back the conference. The United States is pushing for Saudi Arabia and Syria to attend. Bush spoke Tuesday by telephone with Saudi King Abdullah. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Wednesday that there will be room at Annapolis for other conflicts to be aired at Annapolis, including Syria's dispute with Israel over the Golan. However, Saudi Arabia, which unlike Jordan and Egypt has no peace agreement or diplomatic relations with Israel, is concerned that the conference will corner it into a high-profile meeting with the Israelis without assurances that Israel will address the most difficult issues of the peace process, such as the borders of a Palestinian state, the status of east Jerusalem and the future of millions of Palestinian refugees. The kingdom also wants Annapolis to endorse a Saudi-sponsored Arab peace plan that offers Israel peace with all Arab countries in return for the land seized in the Six Day War.