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Arab ministers to attend US peace conference

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Arab foreign ministers meeting in Cairo have agreed to attend a US-sponsored peace conference next week, giving a boost to the US Government's efforts to revive the Middle East peace process.

Arab ministers meeting in Cairo including Syria and Saudi Arabia "have accepted the invitation to attend the Annapolis conference on a ministerial level," according to a final statement from the ministers.

The ministers had sent an urgent letter to the United States asking it to "explicitly" include the issue of the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights on the agenda for the talks in Annapolis, near Washington, on Tuesday.

The US is seeking as wide an Arab participation as possible at the conference, aimed at kick-starting peace talks after seven years of stalemate, and the involvement of states such as Syria and Saudi Arabia is seen as crucial.

"US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has promised a positive response to the request and if we receive a formal positive response, Syria will attend," Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem told a news conference in Cairo.

President Bashar al-Assad has said Damascus will stay away unless the broader Arab-Israeli conflict is up for discussion, including the Golan, the strategic plateau which Israel has occupied since 1967.

Israel welcomed the Arab decision, with foreign ministry spokesman Mark Regev saying "any step by the Arab world to support the process of Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation is a positive step.

"We hope to see an Arab contribution to this process and it is clear that peace will require significant steps from Israel as well as from the Arab world."

Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas, who has held a series of meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to try to draw up a joint document for the US meeting, urged the Arab ministers to seize the "historic opportunity."

"The Annapolis conference is a historic opportunity which we must make the most of and benefit from," he said.

Scepticism abound

But some Arab states are sceptical about the chances of any concrete developments at Annapolis, and opinion polls published this week showed that most Israelis and Palestinians do not think it will succeed.

Olmert warned in comments published on Friday that a failure of efforts to find a peace deal with the Palestinians would have "deadly" results for the Jewish state.

"It will result in Hamas taking over Judea and Samaria [the occupied West Bank], to a weakening or even the disappearance of the moderate Palestinians," Mr Olmert was quoted as saying by the Haaretz newspaper.

"Unless a political horizon can be found, the results will be deadly." © 2007 Australian Broadcasting Corporation

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