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Saudi Arabia, Other Arab Nations to Attend Mideast Peace Conference


After two days of urgent talks in the Egyptian capital, Arab states have agreed to send their foreign ministers to the Middle East peace conference in the U.S. state of Maryland next week. Saudi Arabia says it will participate, agreeing to meet with Israeli officials for the first time in 16 years. VOA correspondent Challiss McDonough has more from Cairo.

Arab foreign ministers meeting in Cairo have agreed to attend the Annapolis peace conference slated to begin next week.

Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal said the Arab states intend to push for a substantive peace deal that safeguards Arab and Palestinian interests, not to put on what he called "a theatrical show" of handshakes for the cameras.

He said it was "no secret" that Saudi Arabia was hesitant about participating in the Annapolis conference. He said the kingdom would not be going if not for what he called "the Arab consensus" that developed at the Cairo meeting.

Like most Arab states, Saudi Arabia has no diplomatic relations with Israel. Only Egypt and Jordan have signed peace deals with the Jewish state.

Saudi Arabia and other Arab states did attend a Middle East peace conference held in Madrid in 1991. The kingdom's attendance at the Annapolis meeting will have enormous symbolic significance, as Saudi Arabia is the birthplace of Islam and an influential regional power.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, whose Fatah group controls the occupied West Bank, said the Annapolis meeting would be a "historic opportunity."

He said he hopes the "Arab brothers" will negotiate in Annapolis with one voice on issues that affect them all.

But the Islamic militant group Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, urged the Arab states not to move toward normalization of relations with Israel. In Gaza, thousands of supporters of Hamas and other militant groups demonstrated against the Annapolis conference.

Hamas was not invited to the meeting and has rejected the idea of peace negotiations with Israel.

An Israeli government spokesman quickly welcomed the Arab decision to attend.

Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa said the Arab foreign ministers will meet again in Washington on Monday, just before the conference opens.

Moussa said the decision to participate was based on the Arab peace initiative that was re-launched in Riyadh earlier this year.

The Arab proposal offers Israel normal relations with all Arab states in exchange for Israel's withdrawal from all lands occupied in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.

Israel rejected the offer when it was originally made in 2002, but has more recently said that it can be a basis for negotiations. On a visit to Cairo on Wednesday, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said he takes the initiative "very seriously." He also said he hopes there can be a peace agreement in 2008. But he said an agreement might not be implemented immediately.

The Annapolis meeting is intended to re-launch the Arab-Israeli peace process, which has been frozen for about seven years. Washington has been pushing for broad participation and has issued at least 40 invitations. Twelve Arab countries, including Lebanon and Syria, are on a committee established earlier this year to deal with the Israeli peace process.

Syria's Foreign Minister Walid Moallem said Syria has asked Washington to put the issue of the Golan Heights on the agenda. If that happens, Syria will also attend.

Earlier this week, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the Golan Heights, which Israel annexed in 1981, could be discussed at the meeting.

Israeli and Palestinian negotiators have failed to agree on a joint statement that was supposed to serve as the basis for the Annapolis conference and efforts to reach a peace agreement. A Palestinian official said it is possible that those talks could continue in the United States before the meeting begins next week.