Arabs give US, Israel benefit of doubt at Annapolis

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BEIRUT, Nov 25 (Reuters) Arab governments held out for weeks before agreeing to go to the West Asia peace conference the United States is organising in Maryland this week.

But they decided that despite what they see as Washington's commitment to Israel and the gradual erosion of its global influence, the United States offers the only mediation that has even the slightest chance of making a difference.

They were also susceptible to urgent appeals from Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who feared that, if other Arabs were absent from Annapolis, Israel and the United States would give him nothing to go home with.

Some Arab leaders also weighed their own close ties with Washington and came to the conclusion it was safer to upset their own people than to upset US President George W Bush.

Arab commentators have said the main aim of the Annapolis conference is to improve the Bush administration's image and placate conservative Arab governments that have criticised its inactivity on West Asia peace.

They note that the conference idea began as a way to strengthen Abbas's hand against the Islamist movement Hamas, which had just defeated Abbas's forces in Gaza and taken control of the territory.

Israel and the United States have also emphasised the importance of bringing in Arab governments that do not have relations with Israel, raising suspicions that the real aim is to promote ''normalisation'' while giving nothing in return.

But Arab officials think they have enough assurances from the United States and Israel to make it worthwhile to attend, according to analysts in close touch with the governments.

''The Americans went a long way in meeting some demands and giving a timetable for implementing any agreement. The Americans did exercise a lot of pressure,'' said Jihad al-Khazen, Lebanese former editor of the London newspaper al-Hayat.

Ezzedin Choukri, director of the International Crisis Group's programme on Arab-Israeli peace, said the Saudis had held out for evidence that Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was serious about making peace and was willing to freeze Israeli settlement building in the West Bank.

''They got assurances that Olmert will commit in Annapolis to implementing Israel's obligation under the road map, which includes the settlement freeze,'' he told Reuters.

LOYALTY TO WASHINGTON In public, Olmert has repeated a promise not to build new settlements but has not taken the further step of freezing expansion work on existing settlements.

Syria said last week the United States had agreed to meet its main demand for attending -- putting the Golan Heights on the agenda for the conference, which will deal mainly with the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.

Damascus has not yet formally accepted the invitation but the analysts said it was clear the Syrians would be going.

Critics of the United States and of the conservative Arab governments say they have doubts about the value of the assurances the governments are said to have received.

Mohamed el-Sayed Said, for example, a political scientist who edits the leftist Cairo newspaper al-Badil, said Egypt would take part solely because of its relationship with Washington.

''The decision is driven by (President Hosni Mubarak's) total loyalty to the United States ... He is sending a message that he is still the very special ally and the United States should stop harassing him on domestic issues,'' he added.

But Choukri said Saudi Arabia had shown earlier this year that it can defy the will of the United States, when it mediated the Mecca agreement between Abbas and Hamas on a Palestinian government of national unity.

''This is a US administration that has failed in Iraq, that has failed in its policy on Syria, that has failed in its policy on Hamas. It has very little capital, very little credibility ... and local actors can afford to ignore it,'' he said.

Ahmed Maher, former Egyptian foreign minister, agreed. ''I don't think it's just to please the United States. This may be one of the considerations but the main consideration is to try every avenue that might, even with doubts, lead to further progress. There are not many other games in town,'' he said.

''They decided to go because it is sometimes good to take advantage of any opportunity.'' The Saudis and other Arab governments that do not have relations with Israel will be on their guard against any Israeli attempts to turn the Annapolis conference into a forum for setting precedents on contacts, the analysts said.

Saudi participation is not in itself a novelty. Saudi envoy Prince Bandar bin Sultan turned up at the ground-breaking Madrid conference in 1991 and Saudi Arabia took part in many rounds of multilateral peace talks in the 1990s.

Reuters SYU GC1743

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