The State Department late Tuesday confirmed plans to convene a much-heralded conference on the Middle East next week in Annapolis, Maryland near Washington. Bush administration officials say they hope the gathering can serve as a launching pad for negotiations leading to a two-state solution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. VOA's David Gollust reports from the State Department.

Preparations for the Annapolis conference have been under way for many weeks so there was little suspense associated with the formal announcement.

However the list of invitees was surprisingly long, including nearly 50 countries and international organizations, among them several key Arab countries that do not have diplomatic relations with Israel - notably Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Syria.

At a news briefing, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Welch declined to predict how many of the nearly 20 Arab or predominately Muslim countries being invited will attend.

But Welch said he, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and other top diplomats have been working virtually around the clock in recent days to promote the conference, which he said he envisages as a launching pad for a promising effort to bring about a two-state solution to the Middle East conflict:

"We're hopeful and expectant that Arab countries will participate, because as we've indicated to you before, this is a serious effort,' said David Welch. "It's devoted to a serious purpose, that is the launch of negotiations for a two-state solution, and that has long been a request from the Arab countries and now they will see it being met. And it's, in our judgment, an appropriate time for them to play a role in exercising their responsibility to lead toward comprehensive peace in the Middle East, too."

The events will span three days, starting in Washington Monday with White House meetings by President Bush with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

Secretary Rice will meet with colleagues from the international quartet on the Middle East and host a State Department dinner for all participants late Monday.

The venue shifts to the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis Tuesday, where Presidents Bush and Abbas and Prime Minister Olmert make opening remarks and delegates, mainly foreign ministers, have three plenary sessions, the final one focused on comprehensive peace in the Middle East.

There will be concluding meetings at the White House Wednesday and the likely release of the policy statement Israeli and Palestinian officials have been negotiating for several days.

Assistant Secretary Welch refused to say what would in the U.S. view make the three days of meetings a success, but said the gathering has the potential for transforming the Middle East situation:

"If, as I say, this is the launching pad for serious efforts between the two to negotiate the establishment of a Palestinian state - part of the realization of a comprehensive peace in the area - that is a signal moment," he said. "That is a total change in the picture that we have seen for quite some time."

Decisions on Arab participation are expected to be made at the Arab League meeting later this week in Cairo.

The Bush administration considers Saudi Arabian attendance to be of key importance and President Bush discussed the issue by telephone with Saudi King Abdullah Tuesday.

Welch said he is hopeful Saudi Arabia will take part, and also said if Syria attends and raises the issue of the Golan Heights, the U.S. hosts will not, as he put it, turn off the microphone.