Israel no objections to Syria at Mideast meeting

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JERUSALEM, Sep 24 (Reuters) Israel does not oppose Syria and other Arab states attending an international conference on Palestinian statehood provided they support the US-led peace process, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said today.

Olmert said the countries that were invited to the US-sponsored conference would be those that accepted what he called ''international parameters'' and the long-stalled ''road map'' peace plan, which Syria has long opposed.

It is unclear if Syria would agree to attend the conference if conditions were imposed on participants.

Any US invitation to Syria could be further complicated by a reported Israeli air strike on September 6 on Syria, which some US officials have linked to apparent Israeli suspicions of secret nuclear cooperation between Damascus and North Korea.

Syrian officials said TOday that the Israeli raid had all but finished off the chance of resuming peace talks.

Washington signalled on Sunday it would invite Syria and other members of an Arab League panel to the conference, pencilled in for mid-to-late November, but suggested Damascus must renounce violence and seek an end to the conflict.

Speaking to a parliamentary committee in a closed-door session TOday, Olmert emphasised to Israeli lawmakers that Arab participation hinged on certain criteria.

''We have no reason to raise opposition. As far as I am concerned, anyone who takes part in the meeting, in accordance with the criteria, represents to me a positive development,'' Olmert was quoted by a parliamentary official as saying.

''The United States will decide on the participants -- those who have clear intentions to support peace with Israel,'' Olmert said. ''The countries that will be invited will be those that accept the international parameters for peace and the road map.'' CONDITIONS In a separate meeting with Israeli Arab lawmakers, Olmert said Syria would be invited to the conference and did not speak of conditions, one of the legislators present said.

Israeli and Palestinian officials said inviting Syria to the conference would be a way to test its willingness to break with Palestinian militants including Hamas, which seized the Gaza Strip in June and has rejected the US-sponsored conference.

''It would legitimise the entire effort'' to bolster Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and isolate Hamas, a senior Israeli official said.

In its latest move to strengthen Abbas, Israel posted today the names of 87 Palestinian prisoners it plans to free from its jails, most of them from Abbas's secular Fatah faction.

Under pressure from allies not to rush into any peace deals, Olmert said his talks with Abbas aimed at a ''joint declaration that relates to core questions that will be the basis for negotiations for the establishment of a Palestinian state''.

''It is a not an agreement. It doesn't resemble an agreement,'' the prime minister said, adding that ''all the parties agree there will be no diversion from the 'road map', even in the future''.

The long dormant ''road map'' set out steps both sides should take. Syria has said it compromises Palestinian rights.

Olmert has tried to defuse tensions with Damascus over the September 6 incident, declaring last week that he respects Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and was prepared to hold peace talks with him with no preconditions.

Syria and North Korea have denied any nuclear cooperation and Damascus has said it may retaliate for what it called a violation of its territory on September 6.

In the months leading up to the incident, Olmert sought assurances from Damascus that a peace deal would lead Syria to sever ties with Iran, Lebanese Hezbollah and Hamas.

Damascus serves as a base for Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and provides support to Hezbollah, which fought a war with Israel last year.

Assad told Syria's parliament in July that before any peace talks Israel must commit itself to withdrawing fully from the Golan Heights, occupied by Israel in the 1967 Middle East war and annexed in 1981 in a move not recognised internationally.

The last round of peace talks collapsed in 2000.

Reuters GT VP0016

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