US plans to invite Syria, Arabs to peace meeting

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RAMALLAH, West Bank, Sep 22 (Reuters) US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has told Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas Washington plans to invite six Arab states including Syria to a West Asia peace conference, Abbas's aides said.

Abbas's senior aide Nimer Hammad said today Washington would like Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, plus the Palestinian Authority to attend the US-sponsored conference, expected to be held in November.

Rice held talks with Abbas during her sixth visit to the region last week as part of efforts to prod Israel and the Palestinians closer to an agreement ahead of the conference.

''Rice told President Abbas in their meeting on Thursday that the US plans to invite the Arab states delegated by the Arab League to follow up the Arab peace initiative. These ... states of course include Syria and Lebanon,'' Hammad told Reuters.

Rice did not say who would be invited to the conference, expected to be held in the Washington area, during her visit. Among the six Arab states, only Jordan and Egypt have full diplomatic relations with Israel.

The rest link formal ties with the Jewish state to an Israeli withdrawal from Arab land it occupied in 1967. Relations between Israel and Syria are particularly tense after reports that the Jewish state conducted air strikes in Syria this month.

Syria has said it was ready to take part in the conference which US President George W Bush called for in July to try to revive Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking. US-Syrian relations have plummeted in recent years amid policy differences over Iraq, Lebanon and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Doubts have risen recently over the conference amidst Israeli-Palestinian differences over the outcome of the meeting, with Saudi Arabia saying it may not attend unless it addressed all issues and a timetable for peace was agreed in advance.

The Palestinians have said it would be difficult for Abbas to attend a conference that other Arab countries boycott. ''We hope enough progress could be made before the conference in order to encourage Arab states to attend,'' a senior Abbas aide said.

Abbas' aides said the Palestinian leader was coming under pressure from his own Fatah group and from some Arab states to boycott the conference if he failed to get written guarantees on key conditions ahead of the meeting.

Those conditions include agreement on a Palestinian state in the West Bank, including Arab East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip, with a clear implementation timeline.

JERUSALEM CAPITAL OF TWO STATES Rice told a news conference last week she had assured Abbas the conference should put the Palestinians firmly on the path to establishing their own state.

She said she was optimistic Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Abbas could agree a joint document on key final status issues such as borders, the fate of Jerusalem, Palestinian refugees and Jewish settlements.

But she said she did not think the document would include a timetable for Palestinian statehood.

A senior Palestinian official close to the talks said Abbas briefed Rice on the progress he had made with Olmert and that the two leaders would meet again later in the month.

He said they had agreed on broad principles -- such as making Jerusalem a shared city that is capital of two states -- but would defer talks on practicalities until after the parley.

The fate of Jerusalem is one of the most sensitive issues for Israelis and Palestinians.

REUTERS GT BD2050

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