CAIRO, Egypt (AP) – Saudi Arabia and other Arab nations grudgingly agreed Friday to attend next week’s U.S.-sponsored Mideast peace conference, despite failing to get any guarantee of Israeli concessions.

In a sign of the skepticism, even among close U.S. allies, the Saudi foreign minister cautioned that there would be no public handshakes with Israeli officials at the gathering Tuesday in Annapolis, Md.

Still, the Arab League’s decision to participate marked a success for the United States, which had pushed hard for regional powerhouse Saudi Arabia to attend the conference.

It was unclear whether another key player, Syria, would show up, even though it was part of the Arab League’s collective decision to participate.

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem said his government was waiting to see if the agenda addressed its priority issue – the return of the Golan Heights, captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war. U.S. officials have said Syria would be free to raise any issue it wants.

The meeting will include discussions on a “comprehensive” Arab-Israel peace deal. But it is mainly intended to launch Israeli-Palestinian negotiations after a lull of seven years, and Washington had pushed for a strong Arab presence to show support.

Arab leaders made clear they were on board in part to ensure that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas does not make any damaging concessions to Israel.

Asked if Abbas has a free rein to negotiate a deal, Arab League chief Amr Moussa underlined that Arab countries would not back an agreement deal that did not meet an Arab plan calling for a return of all lands Israel seized in the 1967 war.

Arab countries – particularly Saudi Arabia, which has no diplomatic relations with Israel – have worried that the conference would corner them into a high-profile meeting with Israel without securing any commitments about the future shape of a peace deal.

Saudi Arabia wants the conference to produce a promise that negotiations will tackle the core issues of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – the borders of a Palestinian state, the status of Jerusalem and the fate of Palestinian refugees. But the Arabs were unable to get any such promises on paper.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said this week that negotiations would address the core issues and that a deal could be reached in 2008.

But Israel opposes a formal timetable or a specific mention of the major issues in a joint declaration expected to be issued at Annapolis.

Still, al-Faisal said the Arabs were attending because they saw a real chance for peace. “For the first time, we felt real seriousness (from Israel) – not out of good intentions but of out of real public opinion that they want real peace in the region,” he said.

The United States had pressured the kingdom heavily to send al-Faisal, rather than a lower-level figure, with President Bush speaking by phone with Saudi King Abdullah earlier this week. The U.S. already had won Egypt’s endorsement of the conference, securing its help in bringing Saudi involvement.

Israel welcomed the news that al-Faisal would attend, with Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev calling it a “positive development.”

“We hope this is only the beginning and that we will see greater and broader Arab involvement in the peace process,” he said. “For this process to succeed, both Arabs and Israelis will have to take bold steps.”

Saudi Arabia, as well as Syria, attended the 1991 Madrid peace conference that brought together Israel and Arab countries. But the kingdom and other Arab nations have been cautious over any steps that would be seen as “normalization” with Israel before it returns Arab lands.

After intense discussions late Thursday and Friday, Arab League members agreed the meeting should be attended by a committee set up earlier this year to deal with the peace process – Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia and Yemen.

Despite the collective decision to participate, Syria’s foreign minister was keeping Washington guessing about whether he would show up.

“We haven’t made a decision to participate until we receive the agenda of the conference and read it to find an item addressing the Syrian-Israeli track, meaning the occupied Golan Heights,” al-Moallem told reporters.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has said there would be room at Annapolis to discuss the Golan Heights.

Asked about Syria, Moussa said “final arrangements” had to be made. He said the Arab foreign ministers would meet again in Washington on Monday, a day before the Annapolis conference.



Associated Press writer Maggie Michael contributed to this report.

AP-ES-11-23-07 1543EST


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