US issues invitations for Mideast peace meet

Updated: 2007-11-21 09:39

RAMALLAH, West Bank -- Washington issued invitations on Tuesday for a much-heralded Middle East peace conference in the United States next week that aims to jumpstart dormant Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas waves before a meeting with Liberia's President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf in the West Bank city of Ramallah November 20, 2007. [Agencies]

Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas was handed an invitation for the meeting to start on November 27 in Annapolis outside Washington by the US consul general in east Jerusalem, his spokesman said.

"President Abbas received the invitation," Nabil Abu Rudeina said.

The Palestinians were the first government to announce that it had received an invitation for the conference, which US President George W. Bush called in July hoping to revive peace talks after a seven-year freeze.

They were swiftly followed by Israel. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert received his invitation on his return from talks with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh aimed at shoring up Arab support for the conference, his spokeswoman Miri Eisin said.

In his letter of invitation to Abbas, US President George W. Bush made clear that the Annapolis meeting was intended to pave the way for comprehensive negotiations between the two sides, a senior Palestinian official said.

"This conference will signal broad international support for your courageous efforts and will be a launching point for negotiations leading to the establishment of a Palestinian state and the realisation of Israeli-Palestinian peace, in accordance with the roadmap," the official quoted Bush as saying.

The last was a reference to an internationally drafted peace blueprint that has made next to no progress since its launch in 2003.

A senior Bush aide said the US president would join the Annapolis meeting and would also host a three-way meeting with Abbas and Olmert at the White House afterwards.

But his spokeswoman Dana Perino stressed that he was not betting everything on Annapolis.

"The president is not a gambler," she said. "We recognize that at the Annapolis conference we are not going to have instant results."

Washington was due to announce the guest list and agenda for the meeting later on Tuesday.

"We have our invitation list," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said, adding there would be "dozens of invitees" including both governments and representatives of international organisations.

The two sides are expected to kick off negotiations on the thorniest issues of their decades-old conflict after the Annapolis meeting.

But their negotiators remain at odds over the wording of a joint statement supposed to serve as a basis for the negotiations, despite weeks of intensive talks.

Nevertheless Olmert insisted after his meeting with Mubarak in Egypt that he hoped to reach a final peace deal with the Palestinians next year.

"I hope to reach a definitive deal with the Palestinians in 2008," he told a joint news conference.

"The negotiations will not be simple. There will be differences, crises and arguments. But if we act with caution, there is a chance that we can reach a deal."

Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni appealed to "the Arab world to contribute to the success of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations because the significance of the Annapolis meeting lies above all in the fact that it will allow the relaunch of these negotiations.

"Israel will have to accompany these talks with gestures towards the Palestinians," she told public television. But "the Annapolis meeting will not prevent us from continuing our fight against terrorism and the Palestinian Authority has the duty to do the same."

The joint document being worked on by negotiators is expected to mention the most intractable issues of the decades-long Middle East conflict -- borders, refugees and Jerusalem.

But the two sides remain divided over how detailed the statement should be, the sequence of implementation for any agreements reached; and whether there should be a body to oversee the implementation.

With some Arab states sceptical about the prospects for the meeting, Bush sought to lay the groundwork, telephoning leaders like Russian President Vladimir Putin and Saudi King Abdullah, the White House said.

Arab foreign ministers are to meet in Cairo on Thursday to decide on their participation.

Syria reiterated on Tuesday that it would stay away unless the return of the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights is up for discussion.

But the Israeli foreign minister said: "The Golan is not on the agenda at the moment."

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