Syria reportedly to skip summit, as Haniyeh calls meet 'stillborn'
Chinese FM announces plans to attend peace summit; Saudi crown prince does not rule out attendance.
Hamas' Gaza leader Ismail Haniyeh said Thursday that next week's U.S.-sponsored Middle East peace conference is stillborn and will achieve nothing for the Palestinians, as the London-based Arabic-language newspaper Al-Hayat reported that Syria has already decided not to attend the Annapolis, Maryland summit.
"We realize that this conference was stillborn and is not going to achieve for the Palestinian people any of its goals or any of the political and legal rights due to them," Haniyeh said outside the Palestinian parliament building in Gaza City.
Haniyeh said Abbas did not have the mandate to make compromises in talks with Israel, especially over the demand of Palestinian refugees to return with their families to homes in Israel they lost during the 1948 War of Independence.
"No one is authorized to compromise or to give up any of these rights, especially the right of return," Haniyeh said.
Haniyeh also called on Abbas not to cave in to a recent Israeli demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people. "We do not recognize that this state is Jewish," Haniyeh said.
"Syria has decided not to attend the Annapolis conference next week, because the issue of the Golan Heights is not mentioned on the agenda of the meeting," Army Radio quoted the Arabic-language publication as saying.
According to Al-Hayat, Syria is waiting for the outcome of a meeting of Arab foreign ministers, to be held in Cairo on Thursday, before officially announcing its intention not to attend next week's summit.
Syria has declared in the past it would only take part in the peace conference if the Golan Heights, which Israel captured from it in the 1967 Six-Day War, is on the agenda.
Syria received an official invitation to the summit on Wednesday. Charge d'Affaires Michael Corbin, the highest ranking U.S. diplomat stationed in Damascus, delivered the invitation letter to the foreign ministry's chief of protocol, the diplomats in the Syrian capital told reporters.
"The Syrians are getting what they want even if the Golan is not explicitly mentioned. The letter talks about United Nations resolutions and the Arab peace initiative, which Syria supports" one of the diplomats said.
"There will even be a session in the conference on comprehensive Middle East peace. Syria will be seen as deliberately trying to spoil Annapolis if it does not show up," the diplomat said.
The Arab peace initiative calls for Israeli withdrawal from all Arab land, including the Golan Heights. Peace talks between Syria and Israel, centered on normal ties in return for the Golan, collapsed in 2000.
Syria is under pressure from Russia and pro-U.S. Arab governments to attend the conference. Even Israel said it was in favor of Syria taking part and Jordan's King Abdullah paid a rare visit to Damascus this week to convince Syrian President Bashar Assad to send a delegation.
"Annapolis will not achieve its goals without Syria," Syrian journalist Ziad Haidar wrote in al-Watan, Syria's only privately owned daily. "Syria is being asked to throw its weight around. The attempts to isolate it have backfired."
The United States has invited about 40 countries, including Saudi Arabia and Syria which have no relations with Israel, to the meeting it hopes will launch negotiations to end the six-decade Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Mubarak meets Abbas and Abdullah ahead of summit Egypt, Jordan and the Palestinians sought Thursday to persuade skeptical Arab nations to attend a U.S.-sponsored Mideast peace conference, insisting it could open the door to a Palestinian state in the next year.
Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak held a mini-summit with the leaders of Jordan and the Palestinians in this Red Sea resort, bringing together the strongest Arab supporters of next week's conference, to be held in Annapolis, Maryland.
Their meeting came ahead of a key gathering of Arab foreign ministers in Cairo Thursday night and Friday that will determine who will attend Annapolis and at what level.
Egypt insisted Thursday that Annapolis could mark a major breakthrough. Mubarak's spokesman Suleiman Awad said the Bush administration was achieving progress that will pave the way to the establishment of the two states and an independent Palestinian state within the next year and before the end of Bush's term.
"This is a commitment for a timetable that we hear for the first time," he told reporters as Mubarak, Jordan's King Abdullah II and Abbas met.
Awad said Annapolis would launch serious peace negotations according to a timetable and with an agreed upon follow-up mechanism - all top demands of Saudi Arabia.
The United States is pushing for Saudi Arabia, which unlike Jordan and Egypt has no peace agreement or diplomatic relations with Israel, to attend - and to send its foreign minister. President George W. Bush spoke Tuesday by telephone with Saudi King Abdullah.
"We Arabs have several experiences of dealing with Israel that raise question marks about its seriousness, but let's wait and see," Awad said. "We have to believe them until proven otherwise."
Saudi crown prince does not rule out Riyadh's participation Saudi Arabia has not ruled out the possibility of taking part in a Middle East peace conference with Israel next week, according to comments by Crown Prince Sultan carried by state television on Thursday.
"[Whether] the kingdom takes part will depend on a consideration of ongoing circumstances," al-Ikhbariya television quoted the crown prince as saying during a visit to Moscow.
It would be a diplomatic coup for the United States and Israel if Saudi Arabia was represented at the summit in Annapolis, Maryland, on Nov. 27 by its royal foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal.
Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam and the world's biggest oil exporter, has no diplomatic relations with Israel and even turning up could be seen as a major concession and strengthen anti-Western groups backed by Iran.
Saudi officials have said the kingdom will attend if there is an agenda that deals clearly with core issues involved in setting up a Palestinian state alongside Israel.
Arab and Western diplomats say that after a week of intense diplomacy and brinkmanship Riyadh may decide at the last minute to send its foreign minister, but is more likely to send low-level representatives.
They say any change in the Saudi position could emerge after Arab foreign ministers meet in Cairo on Friday.
U.S. President George W. Bush telephoned King Abdullah to formally invite him on Tuesday and Middle East peace envoy Tony Blair visited Riyadh on Wednesday to discuss the summit with the king and his foreign minister.
The United Arab Emirates' Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahayan has also received an invitation from the United States to attend the Annapolis conference and Gulf sources said the UAE position should also emerge from the Arab meeting in Cairo.
"The media thinks the Arabs are looking for an excuse not to go, but they are in fact looking for an excuse to attend. They just need encouragement," said one Gulf source.
"They need to find out who will say what and this should happen in Cairo. They will go, but the question is under which arrangement?"
The United States has invited about 40 countries to the meeting which it hopes will launch negotiations to end the six-decade Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
It was unclear how far the conference would go in tackling the core issues - borders, security, settlements, the status of Jerusalem and the fate of Palestinian refugees - that have defeated previous efforts to end the conflict.
China confirms participation in summit Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi will attend a Middle East peace conference in the United States next week, a government spokesman said Thursday.
"We're willing to take part in all international efforts that will be conducive to the proper settlement of this issue," said Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao.
Washington has organized the 47-nation conference to discuss the conflict over land, nationhood and rights that underlies Israel's conflicts with its Arab neighbors.
China's decision to take part reflects its more active role recently in world politics and peacemaking and growing commercial and diplomatic ties with the Middle East.
"I think the international conference ... has attracted the attention of the international community, including Arab countries, and we all have high expectations and hope substantial results can be achieved," Liu said at a regular ministry briefing.
China has sent peacekeepers on UN missions in Lebanon and Darfur and has used behind-the-scenes diplomacy in dealing with unrest in Myanmar and Sudan.