UNITED NATIONS – Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice expressed hope Sunday that key Arab nations, including Syria, will attend a Mideast peace conference this fall hosted by President Bush.
Rice said invitations haven't been issued yet but "we would hope that the invitations would include the members of the Arab follow-up committee ... charged by the Arab League with following up with the international community on an Arab Peace Initiative" to end the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
The committee members are Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia and Yemen. Only two, Egypt and Jordan, have peace deals with Israel and some, notably Syria and Saudi Arabia, remain technically at war with the Jewish state.
Rice told a news conference after a meeting of the Quartet of key international players promoting Mideast peace — the U.S., U.N., European Union and Russia — that there is an opportunity to move toward settlement of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict that "we should not miss."
"I think that there is a sense of momentum in support of the Palestinians and the Israelis in their efforts to end the conflict," she said.
Rice said that since it had been several years since the Israelis and Palestinians expressed interest in discussing the core issues at the root of the conflict, "it is very important that the regional players of the international community mobilize to support them."
That's why the United States is holding the conference this fall, she said, and why it hopes "that the members of the follow-up committee would hopefully be there."
Rice stressed that "the road ahead is one that is very difficult." But she add: "There is a lot of commitment and hopefully this time we'll succeed."
A senior U.N. official said that members of the Quartet as well as the Israelis and Palestinians will also be invited to the U.S. meeting.
Many Arab states have said they see no use for Bush's conference unless it has clear goals and a realistic chance of meeting them. The U.S. official said Rice believed she could allay those fears in her talks with the Quartet and the Arab League members on Sunday.
Before the Quartet session, Rice held separate meetings with EU envoy Tony Blair, the former British foreign minister, and the foreign ministers from Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. Asked after his meeting with Rice whether Saudi Arabia would attend the conference, the Saudi, Prince Saud al-Faisal, was noncommittal.
The Palestinians want the conference to produce an outline for a peace deal; the Israelis want more vague declarations.
Rice was in the Middle East last week and plans to return to the region soon to continue the planning for the meeting.
Rice's visit last week coincided with Israel's decision to declare the Gaza Strip, which the radical Hamas movement seized in June, as "hostile territory." That designation dealt a potential blow to efforts to bolster moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who now runs only the West Bank.
Meanwhile, Israel on Sunday approved the release of 90 Palestinian prisoners in a goodwill gesture to Abbas. Palestinian officials reacted with disappointment, calling for larger steps at a time when the power struggle with Hamas and peace process are at critical points.
The U.N. meeting will set the stage for separate talks Monday involving Bush, Abbas and Blair