US to invite Syria, Saudi Arabia to peace meeting

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UNITED NATIONS, Sep 23 (Reuters) The United States will invite the members of an Arab League panel that includes Syria and Saudi Arabia to a West Asia peace conference it plans to hold this year, a senior US official said today.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will flesh out her ideas for the conference in talks today with the Quartet of West Asia peace mediators, including her decision to invite the Arab League committee grouping the Palestinian Authority, Syria, Lebanon, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt.

Only the last two have full relations with Israel, while Syria and Lebanon are deeply estranged from the Jewish state.

There has been deep skepticism among Arab diplomats about the US effort this year to promote Israeli-Palestinian peace after six years of what critics regard as relative neglect.

There has also been relatively little detail about the international peace meeting that the United States is expected to host in November, including exactly when and where it would be held and who would be invited.

The US official, who spoke to reporters on condition that he not be named because he was not authorized to speak publicly about the matter, said Rice would share her ideas on the meeting at today's gathering of the Quartet, which includes the European Union, Russia, the United Nations and the United States.

''At an appropriate time, the United States is going to invite the potential participants to this meeting. That would include the parties, their neighbors in the region, the Quartet, the members of the Arab League follow-up committee, and other key international players,'' he told reporters.

It is not clear which of the countries invited would actually attend. Asked about his nation's plans, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal declined comment, saying Arab League members would meet with the Quartet today night and if he had anything to say it would be after those talks.

The United States wants other Arab states to take part in the conference as a way to build support for a broader peace between Israel and its neighbors.

''The goal here is to take this as a step to end the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians and help to bring about comprehensive peace in the West Asia,'' the US official said of the US-sponsored meeting this autumn.

The official said the United States wanted the meeting to address core issues -- widely understood to be borders, Jerusalem, the fate of Palestinian refugees and security arrangements.

''Our intention is to provide support for the bilateral discussions and negotiations between the Palestinians and Israelis so that they can get at ... their vision of a two-state solution,'' he added.

PUTTING 'MEAT' ON ISSUES Ministers at today's Quartet meeting were expected to hear from their envoy, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, describe his initial thinking on establishing a Palestinian state following a lengthy trip to the region this month.

EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana said there was a chance that by the end of the year, a political horizon would be opened for the Palestinians, agreed by both sides and backed by the international community, that should lead to the definition of the final status of a Palestinian state.

''We cannot afford a failure. It would not be staying just in the status quo but going back several years. We cannot allow that to happen,'' Solana told reporters before the Quartet talks.

He said the European Union wanted the planned conference in November to do more than list the issues that must be resolved.

''We have to go beyond the mere stating of issues and try to put some more meat on every issue -- water, borders, security, Jerusalem and refugees. The meeting won't be a photo opportunity but it will be a substantive and serious meeting,'' he added.

REUTERS AK PM0254

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