U.S. Applauds Saudi, Syrians Plans to Attend Peace Conference

The United States on Friday lauded the decision by key Arab states, including Saudi Arabia and Syria, to attend next week's U.S.-hosted Middle East peace conference at the ministerial level, saying it was a sign the 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."

His comments followed an announcement in Cairo by the Arab League that members of a committee tasked with exploring a Saudi proposal for a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace settlement would participate in the conference to be held in Annapolis, Md., on Nov. 27, with separate meetings before and after in Washington.

The Annapolis conference is expected to launch the first round of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks in seven years, which the United States hopes will result in the creation of a Palestinian state by the end of President Bush's second term in January 2009.

"The Annapolis conference will show broad international support for the Israeli and Palestinian leaders' efforts and will be a launching point for negotiations leading to the establishment of a Palestinian state and the realization of Israeli-Palestinian peace," Duckworth said. "We look forward to seeing them all in Annapolis this Tuesday."

Earlier in Cairo, Saudi Arabia and other Arab nations decided to attend, but the Saudi foreign minister, Saud al-Faisal, insisted he would not allow "theatrics" like handshakes with Israeli officials, saying the gathering must make serious progress.

Participation by the Saudi foreign minister was a key goal of the United States to show Arab support for the conference, but until Friday, the kingdom had balked at saying whether it would attend and at what level.

It appeared that Syria — the other major holdout — would also attend, since the Arab decision was a collective one. But, when asked about Syria's attendance, Arab League chief Amr Moussa said "final arrangements" had to be made. Syria has insisted Annapolis address its demands for the return of the Israeli-held Golan Heights.

U.S. officials have said that Syria is free to bring up any issue it wishes at the conference, which will include discussions on a "comprehensive" Arab-Israel peace deal.

The Arab League decision, made after intense discussions late Thursday and Friday, meant that the members of a league committee tasked earlier this year with dealing with the peace process will attend Annapolis. Those countries include Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia and Yemen.

Of those, only Egypt and Jordan recognize Israel.