CAIRO -- Saudi Arabia and other key Arab nations agreed yesterday to attend a U.S.-sponsored peace conference next week in Annapolis, a move that added credibility to Washington's attempt to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict before President Bush leaves office.
The political guessing game over which countries would take part ended here when the Arab League announced that Cabinet-level representatives from its major states, except for Syria, would travel to the meeting in Annapolis. The critical nod came from Saudi Arabia, a strong U.S. ally, which overcame its reservations and indicated that Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal will attend.
"I'm not hiding any secret about the Saudi position. We were hesitant until today," al-Faisal said at a news conference after the Arab League meeting. "But the kingdom would never stand against an Arab consensus, as long as the Arab position has agreed on attending. The kingdom will walk along with its brothers in one line."
Those calculated words capped months of shuttle diplomacy by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who urged Arab leaders to put aside misgivings that Tuesday's conference would be little more than a photo-op by an outgoing U.S. president whose policies have failed across the Middle East.
Rice persuaded Egypt and Jordan and, with their help, gained the endorsement of Saudi Arabia, which Washington regards as the decisive voice in the Arab world.
"This is a signal they believe this will be a serious and substantive meeting," said State Department spokesman Leslie Phillips. "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. We look forward to as full a participation as possible from all invitees, and we look forward to seeing them all in Annapolis this Tuesday."
But the mood at Arab League headquarters was more wary than ebullient. Diplomats attempted to burnish a united Arab front, but few were predicting that the U.S. would put enough pressure on Israel to force lasting concessions leading to an independent Palestinian state. Bold statements mixed with sober assessments that the conference's ambitions had been scaled back from solving the Middle East peace crisis to creating an agenda for future talks.
"What is the objective of this conference?" said Saeb Erakat, a chief Palestinian negotiator. "To avoid high expectations, the objective ... as specified by the invitation is to launch the final status negotiations on the Palestinian-Israeli track."
Syria, an ally of Iran, did not commit to the conference. It has stated that it would go only if Israel's return of the Golan Heights, which it captured from Syria in the 1967 war, were specifically addressed. But by late yesterday it seemed that Syria was leaning toward attending. Syrian media quoted Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem as saying that the U.S. has agreed to add the Golan Heights to the agenda.
"We have not decided whether to participate or not," said al-Moualem. "We are waiting to receive the agenda and to see whether it has the Syrian-Israeli track which means the Golan Heights as the second item."
The Arab League's position bolstered Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who is negotiating with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on the future of the Palestinian state while also dealing with his political split with Hamas and the unrest in Gaza.
Abbas and Olmert are both weak leaders with restless publics. They remain far apart on critical issues and have only agreed to discuss two themes: the short-term questions of Israeli security and settlements and the long-range core issues of Palestinian refugees, borders and the holy city of Jerusalem.
But Abbas said that after discussions with Washington he was confident the talks would be comprehensive.
"We are before an historic opportunity. We want to raise our voice loudly," Abbas said in Cairo. "We are hoping that we will be together at the conference discussing all tracks, the Palestinian-Israeli track, the Syrian-Israeli track and the Lebanese track. ... We are interested in reaching a solution as soon as possible but while Bush is still in the White House."
The political risk for Arab nations is a meeting that produces more rhetoric and picture-taking than timetables and other measures needed to secure Israeli agreements for an independent Palestinian state. The leaders of Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt, who are viewed by their populations as beholden to Washington, worry that their images will suffer if emissaries fly home with little or no Palestinian gains.
That sentiment is particularly strong in Saudi Arabia, which has no diplomatic relations with Israel and is uneasy about sitting with Israelis at a high-stakes gathering. The Saudis have been frustrated by the failure of the so-called Israeli-Palestinian road map for peace begun in 2002. In recent days, Bush called Saudi King Abdullah. That conversation and assurances by Riyadh's Arab allies reportedly persuaded the king that the conference was worth the gamble, especially if it meant that not attending would leave the Saudis embarrassed if progress were made.
But al-Faisal said he was "not prepared to take part in a theatrical show, in handshakes and meetings that don't express political positions."
Amr Moussa, the secretary-general of the Arab League, said the conference, which is expected to be attended by 49 countries, does not mark a "normalization" between Arab countries and Israel.
"We are not going [to Annapolis] to sign a treaty but to re-stress the Middle East question and the Palestinian question after a long period of stagnation," Moussa said.
Noha El-Hennawy and Jeffrey Fleishman write for the Los Angeles Times.