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US to invite Arab League panel to meeting

Saudia Arabia, Syria could go to peace conference

Palestinians passed through the Hawara checkpoint near Nablus in the West Bank. The Israeli Cabinet yesterday voted to release 90 Palestinian prisoners to shore up Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in his power struggle with Islamic Hamas militants. Palestinians passed through the Hawara checkpoint near Nablus in the West Bank. The Israeli Cabinet yesterday voted to release 90 Palestinian prisoners to shore up Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in his power struggle with Islamic Hamas militants. (MUHAMMED MUHEISEN/ASSOCIATED PRESS)

UNITED NATIONS - The United States intends to invite Saudi Arabia, Syria, and other Arab countries that do not have relations with Israel to a Middle East peace conference that will be held in the United States this fall, a senior State Department official said yesterday.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, noting that invitations have not yet been issued, seemed to put some conditions on attendance later yesterday. "Coming to this meeting also brings certain responsibilities," which include renouncing violence and supporting the right of both Israel and Palestine to exist, she said.

Rice spoke after a whirlwind of meetings here with top Arab officials and members of an international peace coordinating body known as the Quartet. The Quartet, which includes the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations, met with its representative for building Palestinian institutions, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, and issued a statement saying that it expects the Middle East conference to "affirm its support for the two-state solution based on a rejection of violence."

The announcement of the invitation list raises the stakes for a meeting that President Bush announced over the summer. The administration had been coy about who might be invited, though officials privately made clear they hoped the Saudis would attend because Riyadh, unlike Jordan and Egypt, does not have diplomatic relations with Israel.

The State Department official, speaking to reporters on the condition of anonymity, said Rice will invite Israel and the Palestinian Authority, their neighbors, members of the Quartet, an Arab League negotiating committee and other "key players." The Arab League "follow-up committee" includes Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria, the Palestinian Authority, Qatar, Lebanon, Egypt, Morocco, Oman, Algeria, Bahrain, Yemen and Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa.

"The invitations are very important because for the time being the Saudis are not coming, the Egyptians are reluctant, et cetera," Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner of France said in an interview last week. "The Arab League, Amr Moussa, told me they will not attend the conference without a moratorium on settlements."

Both Saudi Arabia and Syria, along with Egypt, Jordan, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, sent representatives to a dinner Rice and other diplomats held last night to discuss the conference further, another US official said.

After meeting with Rice earlier, Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal sidestepped a question about whether his government will attend the conference. The invitations to Syria and Lebanon are significant as well because Israel was reported to have attacked Syria earlier this month and fought a war in Lebanon last summer - and because the United States has accused the Syrian government of fomenting violence in the region. Rice told reporters she has called for Syria to change its behavior.

The State Department said Rice assured diplomats here that the conference will be "serious and substantive" and will discuss the "core issues" of the dispute.

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