Olmert and Livni land in US

PMO: Syrian decision will send clear message about where Damascus stands regarding peace process.

Olmert Abbas 224.88 (photo credit: GPO [archive])
Olmert Abbas 224.88
(photo credit: GPO [archive])
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni landed at Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington, DC on Sunday afternoon, Israel Radio reported. Livni was scheduled to meet with US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice at her residence later Sunday evening. Olmert and Livni set out Saturday overnight, buoyed by news that a wide array of Arab nations planned to attend the US-sponsored peace gathering set for this Tuesday, including Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and other members of the Arab League. Boarding the flight, Olmert told journalists he hoped the meeting would "allow the launch of serious negotiations on all the core issues, which will lead to a solution of two national homes for two peoples." Olmert said he would be happy to see Syria attend the conference and that he didn't think the Americans promised the Syrians anything in return for their participation in the conference. He said that if the conditions will be created for negotiations with Syria Israel would see this positively. Syria is expected to make a final decision on Sunday or Monday regarding its attendance at Tuesday's conference in Annapolis, to which more than 40 nations have been invited. Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem said his government was waiting to see if the official agenda would include its priority issue - the return of the Golan Heights, captured by Israel in the Six Day War. The Syrian decision would send a clear message about where Damascus stood regarding the peace process, Miri Eisin, a spokeswoman for the Prime Minister's Office, told The Jerusalem Post on Saturday night. "We have stated recently that we think Syria should take a clear stand in support of the process," Eisin said. "If they come, it is clear and if they do not come it is clear." Still, Eisin said, it would be best if the conference remained focused on the Israeli-Palestinian track. "Annapolis is not about opening up an additional negotiating process, but rather emboldening the one that is being nurtured now. I think we should focus on that," Eisin said. "In that sense, the open support of the Arab League shows their acknowledgement that if we do go seriously forward on this track, it can open the other avenues," said Eisin. Overall, she said, "We are very satisfied that the Arab League members and Saudi Arabia see this also as an opportunity to push the process forward, to arrive at a real resolution between Israel and the Palestinians." "Their open support for the process is a positive influence," said Eisin. The plane with Olmert and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni was due to land at 6 a.m. on Sunday. But substantive events are not scheduled to begin until Monday, when both Olmert and Livni are scheduled to meet with US President George Bush at the White House. Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who also left on Saturday night for the US, told the Post last week that Syrian participation would be a positive step. Speaking with reporters last week, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said: "The meeting is about the Palestinian-Israeli track. But if people want to address other tracks or talk about them, they're certainly not going to be ruled out of order." AFP, the French news agency, reported that the US had agreed to put the question of the Golan on the agenda, but that Syria was waiting for official confirmation. Asked about Syria's attendance, Arab League chief Amr Moussa said "final arrangements" had to be made. But leading Arab countries like Saudi Arabia were lukewarm in their support for the conference, with the Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal stating that he was unlikely to publicly shake hands with Israeli officials. Faisal said that while he was going to Annapolis, he would not join in any Arab-Israeli handshakes like those stage-managed by US officials at past conferences, such as the one between prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian Authority chairman Yasser Arafat in 1993. "We are not prepared to take part in a theatrical show, in handshakes and meetings that don't express political positions. We are going with seriousness and we work on the same seriousness and credibility," he said after the meeting. "I'm not hiding any secret about the Saudi position. We were reluctant until today. And if not for the Arab consensus we felt today, we would not have decided to go," he said. Still, Faisal said the Arabs were attending because they saw a real chance for peace. "For the first time, we felt real seriousness (from Israel) - not out of good intentions, but of out of real public opinion that they want real peace in the region," he said. Eisin told the Post that it was the Saudis' attendance and not a handshake that was significant. "Let's get there and see what happens," she said. Washington lauded the decision, saying Friday that it was a sign the Annapolis talks would be productive. "This is a signal they believe this will be a serious and substantive meeting," said Karl Duckworth, a State Department spokesman. "We look forward to as full a participation as possible from all invitees." Saudi Arabia, as well as Syria, attended the 1991 Madrid peace conference that brought together Israel and Arab countries. But the kingdom and other Arab nations have been cautious over any steps that would be seen as "normalization" of relations with Israel before it returns Arab lands. Arab leaders who met in Cairo on Thursday and Friday made clear they were on board in part to ensure that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas does not make any damaging concessions to Israel in any negotiations on a final peace deal. Israel has dangled the possibility of an accord as early as the end of 2008. Asked if Abbas has a free rein to negotiate a deal, Moussa underlined that Arab countries would not back an agreement deal that did not meet an Arab peace plan calling for a return of all lands Israel seized in the 1967 war. "I repeat again and again that we are governed by the Arab initiative in all behaviors and ... and in our agreement to end the Arab-Israeli conflict," he told reporters after the foreign ministers of the league's member states decided to go to Annapolis. Arab countries - particularly Saudi Arabia, which has no diplomatic relations with Israel - have worried that the conference would corner them into a high-profile meeting with Israel without securing any commitments about the future shape of a peace deal. Saudi Arabia wants the conference to produce a promise that negotiations will tackle the core issues of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict - the borders of an independent Palestinian state, the status of Jerusalem and the fate of Palestinian refugees. It also seeks a timetable for talks, a mechanism to ensure progress and a commitment to the Arab peace plan. But the Arabs were unable to get any such promises on paper. Olmert said this week that negotiations would address the core issues and that a deal could be reached in 2008. But Israel opposes a formal timetable or specific mention of the major issues in a joint declaration expected to be issued at Annapolis. Eisin told the Post that what was most important here was not the content of the statement, but the fact that so many nations had gathered to announce the opening of direct bilateral negotiations. "This is more than people would have thought was possible not so long ago," Eisin said. To push the process forward past Annapolis, Egypt has invited both Israel and the Palestinians to meet in Taba, according to a spokeswoman for Meretz Party leader Yossi Beilin, who was in Cairo over the weekend. She said that Beilin had also met with the foreign minister from Oman who told him that, after Annapolis, negotiating channels would be opened between Israel and Syria, as well as Israel and Lebanon. According to AFP, there is also talk of a follow-up meeting in Moscow next year to reassure Arab countries that Russia plays a key role in the Middle East. Russia is among the countries heading to Annapolis this week. Also in attendance will be China, Japan, Canada, South Africa, Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, the United Kingdom, Spain, Turkey, France, Italy and Germany. Olmert spoke by phone Saturday with Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel and "underlined his great interest in the success of the meeting in Annapolis," the German government said in a brief statement. The release of 431 Palestinian security prisoners authorized by the government has been delayed until early next week, Israel Radio reported on Saturday night. The decision to release the prisoners as a goodwill gesture to Abbas was approved by the cabinet last Monday. It was apparently postponed until after Annapolis at the request of the defense establishment, which opposed the release before the summit. Jerusalem Post staff and AP contributed to this report. •