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U.S. Praises Saudis, Syria for Attending Summit

NPR's Peter Kenyon

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Ambassador Robert Pelletreau

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The White House on Friday praised key Arab states for agreeing to attend next week's Middle East peace conference in Annapolis, saying it was a signal that the talks would be productive.

The conference in the Maryland capital starts Tuesday and is expected to launch the first round of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks in seven years, which the United States hopes will result in the creation of a Palestinian state by the end of President Bush's second term in January 2009.

"The Annapolis conference will show broad international support for the Israeli and Palestinian leaders' efforts and will be a launching point for negotiations leading to the establishment of a Palestinian state and the realization of Israeli-Palestinian peace," said Karl Duckworth, a State Department spokesman.

The comments followed an announcement in Cairo by the Arab League that members of a committee tasked with exploring a Saudi proposal for a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace settlement would participate in the conference to be held in Annapolis, Md., on Nov. 27, with separate meetings before and after in Washington.

Earlier in Cairo, Saudi Arabia and other Arab nations decided to attend, but the Saudi foreign minister, Saud al-Faisal, insisted he would not allow "theatrics" like handshakes with Israeli officials, saying the gathering must make serious progress.

Participation by the Saudi foreign minister was a key goal of the United States to show Arab support for the conference, but until Friday, the kingdom had balked at saying whether it would attend and at what level.

It appeared that Syria - the other major holdout - would also attend, since the Arab decision was a collective one. But, when asked about Syria's attendance, Arab League chief Amr Moussa said "final arrangements" had to be made. Syria has insisted Annapolis address its demands for the return of the Israeli-held Golan Heights.

U.S. officials have said that Syria is free to bring up any issue it wishes at the conference, which will include discussions on a "comprehensive" Arab-Israel peace deal.

The Arab League decision, made after intense discussions late Thursday and Friday, meant that the members of a league committee tasked earlier this year with dealing with the peace process will attend Annapolis. Those countries include Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia and Yemen.

Of those, only Egypt and Jordan recognize Israel.

From NPR reports and The Associated Press