Arab Nations Threaten to Boycott Mideast Conference Unless Israel Returns Lands

The 22 nations in the Arab League will not participate in a U.S.-sponsored Mideast peace conference until Israel withdraws from lands it occupied during the latest violence with Palestinians, the league's secretary-general said Saturday.

The potential holdouts include moderate Egypt and hard-line Syria, both of which said separately Saturday they would not attend unless Israel withdraws from lands seized since the conflict began in September 2000.

Secretary of State Colin Powell recently announced plans for a conference, perhaps to be held next month in Europe, that would attempt to clear "the political way forward" for a Palestinian state.

It is not known who will attend, but a U.S. official has said the invitees are expected to include parties that have shown an interest in advancing the peace process.

The United Nations, European Union and Russia have endorsed the idea, while Israel said it needed to know more about the conference before deciding whether to attend.

But Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa said in Cairo that Arab countries will not participate unless Israel withdraws from the disputed territory.

"How could we think about such a conference while Israel is still occupying the Palestinian territories? What is the authority and agenda of this conference?" he asked.

"We have important conditions, and this would be one of the issues discussed in upcoming Arab meetings until we reach a consensus."

Foreign ministers of Arab League members will meet in Cairo next week, Moussa said. Previously, the Arab League offered Israel normal relations with Arab countries in exchange for withdrawing from lands seized in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.

In the meantime, Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher and President Hosni Mubarak's top adviser, Osama el-Baz, will meet Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in Ramallah on Sunday, an Egyptian diplomat in Jordan said Saturday.

Arafat welcomed the conference proposal, but said he would consult Arab leaders before deciding on his authority's participation.

Maher said the conference was "still under discussion," and repeated Moussa's position that there can be no meeting with Israelis until Israeli troops vacate the Palestinian territories.

Syrian President Bashar Assad was quoted by the official news agency as saying, "What are the negotiations going to yield if there is no clear course?

"The limits and criteria of the wanted negotiations must be known," Assad was quoted as saying.

The government-run Syria Times editorialized that the conference would be an attempt to "build the process on new bases that better suit Israel's demands and needs."

Syria's absence would deprive the conference of a major player in Mideast peacemaking. Syria long has insisted it will not make peace with Israel until Israel withdraws completely from the Golan Heights, a Syrian plateau captured in 1967 and later annexed.

The Jordanian government did not say whether it would attend, but State Minister for Foreign Affairs Shaher Bak said the conference would have to be "well prepared and have clear references," the official Petra news agency reported.

Lebanese Foreign Minister Mahmoud Hammoud declined to commit itself Saturday. But Lebanon likely will follow the decision of Syria, its dominant eastern neighbor, on whether to attend the conference.