Arab leaders in Egypt ahead of peace meeting

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was hosting a summit with the Palestinian and Jordanian leaders on Thursday as Arab foreign ministers mull whether to join a United States-sponsored peace conference next week.

Mubarak met Jordan’s King Abdullah II in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh to discuss preparations for the conference, the official Mena news agency reported.

The Egyptian leader will also meet Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas before holding a three-way summit.

The meetings come amid a rush of diplomatic movements in the region ahead of the peace meeting in Annapolis, outside Washington, on November 27 aimed at jumpstarting Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

During a visit to Egypt on Tuesday, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said he hoped to reach a peace deal with the Palestinians in 2008.

But there are differences between the Israelis and Palestinians over a joint document to presented at the conference—even over what the statement should be called.

The Palestinian leadership and other Arab states are looking to tackle the thorniest issues such as the status of east Jerusalem, the boundaries of a future Palestinian state and the status of Palestinian refugees. Israel instead wants a less detailed document, stating a list of principles on which to base negotiations.

Arab foreign ministers were to meet at Arab League headquarters in Cairo on Thursday for preparatory talks ahead of a Friday session to be attended by Abbas, which will decide on Arab participation at the Annapolis meeting.

“The main issue on the agenda is to decide whether Arab participation will be determined by a common decision, or individually,” said Hisham Yussef, secretary general Amr Mussa’s chief of staff.

The Cairo meeting will bring together members of the Arab contact group—including Egypt, Jordan, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Qatar, Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, Sudan and the Palestinian Authority—tasked with reactivating an Arab peace initiative launched by Saudi Arabia last year.

The plan offers normalisation of ties with the Jewish state in exchange for Israel withdrawing from Arab land occupied since 1967.

As the talks approach, the US is hoping to widen the scope of the conference by enticing Arab states like Saudi Arabia and Syria to join the summit.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said on Wednesday that Washington wanted “as broad an Arab participation as possible”.

The US administration had initially wanted to limit Tuesday’s peace-summit agenda to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but has decided to broaden the discussions to satisfy several Arab countries, particularly Saudi Arabia.

“There is very clear understanding among everybody that this is a meeting about the Palestinians and the Israelis.
But nobody denies that you will eventually have to resolve the Syria-Israeli track, the Lebanon-Israeli track, and ultimately that there has to be normalisation of relations between Israel and the Arab world,” Rice said.

Saudi Arabia, a principal patron of the Palestinians and an influential voice in the Muslim world, has yet to confirm its participation at the conference.

Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad has said that Damascus will stay away from the conference unless the broader Israeli-Arab conflict is up for discussion, including the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.

Egypt, a key broker between Israel and the Palestinians, said on Wednesday that Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul Gheit would be its representative at the talks.—Sapa-AFP

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