Israel, Palestinians Like Peace Conference Idea

Israel and the Palestinians on Friday cautiously welcomed a U.S. proposal to convene an international Mideast peace conference early this summer, but stopped short of promising to attend. 

Both sides said they wanted more details after U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell announced the move Thursday with the support of U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, leaders of the European Union and Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov. 

Powell said one of the goals of the meeting would be to clear "the political way forward" to a Palestinian state. 

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, speaking at his shell-struck headquarters in the West Bank town of Ramallah on Friday, said he had not been informed officially about the plan. 

"Until now, it is only an idea and we welcome it, but we have still not agreed to it," Arafat said, adding that he would consult with Arab leaders before making a decision. Arab League foreign ministers are to meet next week in Cairo. 

Israeli officials noted that in March, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon himself proposed a regional peace conference — Israel's response to a new Arab peace initiative under which Israel would withdraw from all territories it occupied in the 1967 war, in exchange for comprehensive peace with the Arab world. 

At the time, Sharon said he wanted Israel, the Palestinians and Arab states to attend a regional conference, while his advisers said Arafat — branded by Israel as a terrorist — would not be welcome. Sharon staunchly opposes giving back all the territory captured in 1967. 

According to the U.S. plan, the delegations at the conference would be led by foreign ministers, rather than heads of state, getting around the issue of Arafat's attendance. 

Sharon was to meet with President Bush in Washington next week to discuss the conference idea. The Israeli daily Haaretz said Friday that Sharon would propose a long-term interim agreement with the Palestinians, with the details to be worked out in a regional conference. 

Palestinians, who have negotiated a series of interim deals with Israel since Mideast peace-making was launched by a 1991 conference in Madrid, have said they would not settle for another partial deal. 

Gideon Meir, an Israeli government spokesman, said Israel would have to hear more details before deciding on whether to attend an international conference. 

"We don't know the details yet of what Secretary Powell spoke about. We don't know if the two ideas coincide," Meir said. 

Arafat's aides, meanwhile, appeared to be skeptical about the idea, saying they did not want to renegotiate deals already reached with previous Israeli governments. 

Palestinian Cabinet Minister Saeb Erekat said the conference's goals and terms of reference would have to be clearly defined. 

"This conference would have to come with a mandate and a target, which is to put an end to Israeli occupation," Erekat said. "We don't want to turn back 11 years, when a conference was held in Madrid, and the same decisions were taken." 

The Arab response was difficult to gauge Friday, a Muslim holiday. In Cairo, Arab League spokesman Hisham Youssef said he could not comment on the conference plan as Arab governments were awaiting details from the Americans.