The Bush administration decided to invite Syria to the Annapolis conference due to Israel's September air strike on what foreign media have termed a Syrian nuclear facility, American officials said.
"Syria lost an important card in the air force strike, and that moved even members of the administration's conservative camp to reconsider the position on Damascus," one said.
The officials added that inviting Syria would reduce the likelihood of its encouraging Hezbollah and Hamas to undermine the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks that Annapolis is supposed to launch.
Israeli and American officials held talks over the weekend on a formula for referring to the Syrian track that would suffice to bring Syria to the conference without undermining Israel's interests. According to an Israeli government source, Jerusalem was interested in Syrian participation, but wanted the conference to focus on the Palestinian track.
In the end, Washington decided to change the topic of the third session from "the Arab states' involvement in the process" to "the effort to achieve a comprehensive regional peace" - language that implies peace deals with Syria and Lebanon as well as the Palestinians.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Defense Minister Ehud Barak all left for Annapolis last night. Today, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will lead a final round of talks aimed at drafting a joint Israeli-Palestinian declaration. Livni and Rice will also discuss the contents of the session on a comprehensive regional peace. The Quartet of Middle East peacemakers - the U.S., European Union, United Nations and Russia - will also meet today, at the level of foreign ministers.
Tomorrow, the three Israeli ministers will meet with U.S. President George Bush, as will Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas. Barak will also meet U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to discuss the Iranian nuclear program. In the evening, Rice will host a dinner for all conference participants; both she and Bush will address the dinner.
The conference itself will take place Tuesday. It will open at about 10 A.M. with a three-way meeting between Bush, Olmert and Abbas, after which each will give a speech. Then, the working sessions will begin; representatives of other countries are expected to give speeches at various points during these sessions.
Livni will also try to meet privately with some of the Arab foreign ministers at the conference, including those from countries with which Israel has no relations.
On Wednesday, Olmert and Abbas will each meet privately with Bush to talk about what happens next. Olmert and Bush will also discuss the Iranian nuclear program. In internal discussions recently, Olmert has declared that "there will not be an Iranian bomb."
Over the weekend, Olmert spoke by phone with several leaders of countries sending representatives to Annapolis, including Russian President Vladimir Putin, King Abdullah of Jordan, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
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