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Syria Pledges Cooperation on Lebanon as Controversial Arab Summit Opens

Syria's president has denied allegations that he is meddling in Lebanese politics and says he will cooperate with efforts to end the political crisis in the neighboring country. He spoke at an Arab League summit in Damascus that key Arab leaders are boycotting over what they call Syria's role in the Lebanese crisis. VOA correspondent Challiss McDonough has more from our Middle East bureau in Cairo.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad spoke in a conciliatory tone at the opening session of the controversial summit. Leaders of about a dozen of the Arab League's member states stayed home, largely over what they claim is Syria's interference in Lebanon's political crisis.

President Assad said "Syria is ready to cooperate with any Arab or non-Arab efforts" to solve the Lebanese crisis, as long as, in his words, any initiative is based on the principle of a national Lebanese consensus.

About half the Arab League member states, including Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, sent lower level officials instead of their leaders. Lebanon boycotted the meeting entirely.

The governments of those countries accuse Damascus of blocking the election of a new Lebanese president. Syria denies meddling in Lebanese politics.

In Riyadh, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal said he is "still awaiting" a "positive move" from Syria over Lebanon, but he denied allegations that Saudi Arabia and other Arab states are trying to isolate Syria by avoiding the summit.

At the summit's opening session, Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa said he will continue his efforts to break the Lebanese deadlock, which has left the country without a president since November.

Moussa also said Arab states may have to re-evaluate their support for negotiations with Israel. Arab diplomats have said they may withdraw the Arab League's peace initiative, which offers Israel normal relations with all Arab states in exchange for an Israeli withdrawal to its borders before the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.

Israel has not accepted the initiative, but has said it can be a basis for negotiations.

Moussa said the offer will not remain on the table indefinitely.

An Israeli Cabinet minister said earlier this week that Israel is trying to bring Syria back to the negotiating table to strike a peace deal returning the Golan Heights to Syrian control. But President Assad appeared to flatly reject the idea of a separate peace in the absence of a comprehensive solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

He said, peace will not be achieved "except through the complete withdrawal from all occupied Arab territories and through restoration of all rights."

Later, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas blasted Israel for continuing to build settlements in the occupied West Bank, saying it undermines plans for a viable Palestinian state.

He said negotiations cannot continue while, in his words, "Israeli bulldozers are swallowing Palestinian land and building settlements, and with daily Israeli military operations."

He also condemned Israeli military attacks on the Gaza Strip, which has been controlled by the Islamic militant group Hamas since June.

Israel says its attacks are aimed at eliminating rockets and launchers being used by Palestinian militants to attack Israeli towns near the Gaza Strip.

The summit continues on Sunday and a communique is expected.