CAIRO, Egypt - Hamas rejected President Bush's proposal for a Mideast peace
conference, denouncing it Tuesday as nothing but lies, while Syria said it fears
the offer is "just words."
Without cooperation from key Arab
players, Bush's last major push for a Mideast breakthrough could falter.
Syria's President Bashar Assad addresses parliament shortly
after he was sworn in for a second, seven-year term in office, in
Damascus, Tuesday July 17, 2007. [AP]
Washington's close Arab allies, including Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan,
welcomed Bush's proposal, but stressed the importance of making an Arab
land-for-peace proposal first adopted in 2002 as key to any talks. Israel's
support was also qualified, with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's spokeswoman saying
it was too early to talk about full-fledged peace talks as long as Palestinian
violence against Israel continues.
Bush called Monday for an international conference in the fall aimed at
restarting peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, saying it was a
"moment of choice" in the Middle East. US officials expressed hope that Arab
countries, including moderate nations that do not have diplomatic relations with
Israel, would attend.
The gathering is aimed at giving international support to US-backed
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, whose forces were recently routed by the
Hamas militant group in the Gaza Strip. With international backing, the moderate
Abbas now heads an emergency government based in the West Bank. Hamas, which
refuses to recognize Israel, remains isolated in Gaza.
Though the fall conference's exact date, location, agenda and participants
remain unknown, without support from Hamas and its main backer, Syria, there
were doubts that the gathering would have much impact.
The White House played down the meeting's importance Tuesday and said it was
too early to say where or when it would take place. "I think a lot of people are
inclined to try to treat this as a big peace conference" said White House
spokesman Tony Snow. "It's not."
A 1991 Mideast peace conference in Madrid paved the way for the Oslo peace
accords and establishment of the Palestinian Authority. But repeated stalemates
have since left many skeptical that a repeat of that gathering would lead to a
major and enduring breakthrough.
Syria's UN ambassador, Bashar Ja'afari, said the conference's legitimacy
hinged on the involvement of Syria and Iran.
Bush "did not elaborate on who would be invited. One minute before he
declared this initiative, he attacked Syria and Iran," Ja'afari said in New
York. "That means he is excluding, somehow, Syria and Iran from this so-called
Some also were skeptical of Bush's motives.
"The Bush administration is driven by its failure in Iraq and its failure to
secure support from US-friendly Arab regimes for its regional policies," said
Amr Hamzawy, a Middle East expert at Carnegie Endowments, a Washington-based
"I read this morning that the American president spoke of his wish to work
for a peace conference. I hope ... this is true, but to this moment these are
just words as far as we are concerned," Syria's President Bashar Assad said in
an address to parliament after being sworn in for a second seven-year term in
Assad said he hoped Bush's call was serious, and also said Syria was ready to
resume peace talks with Israel, while dismissing again rumors of secret
He said several peace mediators had recently approached him to try to restart
talks. "We told those delegations about our firm stance, the rejection of secret
negotiations, because there is no need to hide anything from the people," Assad
He added that Syria wanted written guarantees on the restitution of the Golan
Heights, taken by Israel in the 1967 war, as a precondition to negotiations. The
talks, he said, must occur in the presence of "an honest broker." He did not say
whether he considered the US as such, although UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon
has said the world body would be willing to mediate.
In Gaza, Hamas' response was harsher, with the militant group denouncing the
Bush proposal as "lies" to the Palestinian people.
"We believe that all promises made by Bush are false promises ... They're
lies," said Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri. "The promise of establishing a
Palestinian state is old. It will not be implemented."
"This process will lead to nowhere," Hamas' exiled leader, Khaled Mashaal,
told the Al-Jazeera TV network late Tuesday.
He accused Bush of trying to widen the rift between Fatah and Hamas. "As
usual, Bush wants to divide the Palestinians and the Arabs into moderates and
radicals," Mashaal said. "A moderate is accepted by America and a radical is
rejected by America.
A top European official warned against isolating Hamas, saying there was a
risk of pushing the Islamic militant movement into the arms of al-Qaida.
"Hamas has committed terrorist acts, but it is also a movement of the people.
For the West not to recognize a government that was democratically elected ...
it is not a very good lesson in democracy," said Italian Foreign Minister