Skeptical Arab leaders agree to attend Mideast peace conference

CAIRO, Egypt — Arab countries reluctantly agreed Friday to attend next week's U.S.-sponsored Middle East conference in Annapolis, Md., a scaled-down meeting for which there are scaled-down expectations.

Arab foreign ministers made the announcement in Cairo, where the Arab League is holding talks on member nations' conditions for nudging forward peace negotiations between the Palestinians and Israel.

Syrian officials said they wouldn't attend the conference unless the disputed Golan Heights, which Israel captured in 1967 and annexed in 1981, was on the agenda. Saudi Arabia eventually agreed to attend, but its foreign minister said he wouldn't tolerate "theatrics" such as handshakes and photo opportunities with Israeli officials.

"I'm not hiding any secret about the Saudi position. We were reluctant until today," Princeton-educated Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al Faisal told a news conference in Cairo. "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."

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice arranged the conference, scheduled for Tuesday at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, to bring together Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and hammer out a joint resolution to end the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. President Bush will speak, and Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon, Qatar and other countries and world organizations are expected to attend.

Olmert and Abbas, however, have yet to agree on the joint statement they pledged to announce at the conference, and some Arab officials said Friday that the conference planning appeared haphazard.

The event, initially billed as a groundbreaking summit, has shrunk to a half-day event that one senior Egyptian official, who diplomatically spoke only on the condition of anonymity, derided as a "coffee party." As late as this week, some participants complained that they still hadn't received formal invitations, and skeptics said the conference wasn't likely to yield more than a promise of more talks.

In a column in an Arabic-language newspaper, former Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher dismissed the event as a "theatrical farce."

Arab foreign ministers on Friday endorsed a 2002 Saudi peace initiative and the so-called "road map" agreement, which calls for Israel to withdraw from territories it won from Egypt, Jordan and Syria in 1967 and to freeze construction of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, between Israel and Jordan. Israel has abandoned similar settlements in Gaza, between Israel and Egypt.

In exchange for the creation of an independent Palestinian state, Arab countries would establish full diplomatic ties with Israel and the Palestinian Authority would halt all acts of violence against Israel.

Hossam Zaki, a spokesman for the Egyptian Foreign Ministry, said the Arab nations' demands hinged on "a firm and agreed-upon timetable to finish negotiations, and a mechanism to enable the international community to monitor negotiations and implementation."

In Arab newspapers, talk shows and college campuses, there's little optimism about the Annapolis conference. Arab media noted that Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations have remained stagnant for the past seven years and that there's still no resolution in sight for fiercely debated issues such as the right of Palestinian refugees to return to homes in what's now Israel and the land that Israel would cede to a Palestinian state.

"Nothing substantial will be achieved," said Hassan Nafaa, the head of Cairo University's political science department. "If they don't reach concrete agreements on Jerusalem, the refugees, the settlements, then there will be no success."

Nafaa contended that the Bush administration was courting Arab rulers with a rejuvenation of peace talks to muster Arab support for a possible U.S. strike on Iran.

(El Naggar is a McClatchy Newspapers special correspondent.)