The U.S. was going to accede to the Palestinian Authority's demand to invite Syria and Lebanon to the November regional peace conference in Washington, the political advisor to Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas has told Haaretz. Political advisor Nimer Hamad also said U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice pledged during a meeting with Abbas on Thursday that the U.S. would invite the monitoring committee of the Arab League to the November peace conference in Washington. Hamad specified that this included representatives from Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Lebanon, Syria and Egypt, and that members of the Middle East Quartet and the G-8 would also take part. Hamad added that talks were underway between the Israeli and Palestinian negotiating teams ahead of their first official meetings. The Palestinian team includes former PA prime minister Ahmad Qureia, the head of negotiations for Fatah Saeb Erkat, and the head of the PA executive committee, Yasser Abed Rabo. On October 1, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas will be meeting again. On this occasion, each side's negotiating teams will be joining them for the first time.
According to Palestinian sources, Saudi Arabia is also pressuring the U.S. to include Syria and Lebanon in the conference. The sources say the Saudis want as many Arab countries as possible to participate at the conference to give its own role Arab legitimacy. Despite Riyadh's pressure, Lebanon is not likely to send a representative to the conference unless Syria does, and therefore the Saudis want the U.S. to invite Syria as well. However, it is not clear whether Riyadh will participate in any case. The Saudis are also said to be examining the possibility of participating as observers only, as they did in Madrid in 1991.
Rice understands that conditions are not yet ripe to bring a detailed agreement on the conflict's core issues to the regional conference, a senior government source in Jerusalem told Haaretz.
In her recent talks in Israel, Rice heard from all sides that there is no chance of reaching a framework agreement on the core issues because of the major gaps between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Therefore, the two sides should work toward a document reflecting the issues on which there is agreement, which would be presented at the November conference as a joint Israeli-Palestinian declaration.
The source said Israel was working toward a joint statement that would be as general as possible "so the conference will mark the jump-starting of a process and not the end of it."
Rice told reporters accompanying her on her plane on Thursday after taking off from Israel that she was optimistic regarding the chances of an Israeli-Palestinian joint document ahead of the summit. She also said that the document would not include a timetable and that she had not managed to bridge the gaps during her visit. However, she did say that the document would relate to the core issues on the establishment of a Palestinian state.
Prime Minster Ehud Olmert is to bring to the cabinet tomorrow a proposal for the release of some 100 Palestinian prisoners as a gesture for the holiday of Eid el-Fitr marking the end of the month-long Ramadan observance. Olmert and Abbas agreed on the release at their last meeting. Olmert's bureau said all the prisoners on the list are members of Fatah without "blood on their hands" and that Olmert's representative dealing with the return of the kidnapped Israel Defense Forces soldiers supports the release and does not believe it will make the release of Gilad Shalit more difficult.
Shas and Israel Beiteinu ministers have already announced their intention to vote against the prisoner release.
Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni left yesterday for New York to take part in the opening of the UN General Assembly. She is expected to meet with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, with Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayad, with Abbas and with a number of her counterparts, including some from the Arab and Muslim world, who do not have diplomatic relations with Israel.
Joining Livni on her New York visit will be the families of Israel's kidnapped soldiers, who will also take part in some of the diplomatic meetings. Livni will also attend closed meetings with Rice, and will apparently meet with President George W. Bush. In addition to discussing the preparations for the regional conference, Livni is expected to focus in her talks on the matter of Iran's nuclear program and ratcheting up sanctions on Tehran.
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