JERUSALEM – Syria plans to send a deputy foreign minister to the U.S.-sponsored Middle East peace conference in Annapolis, Md., this week, government officials in the Syrian capital of Damascus said Sunday.
The announcement, carried by news agencies in Damascus, amounts to a diplomatic compromise by the Syrians, who had demanded that the return of the Golan Heights from Israel be placed on the meeting’s agenda in return for their participation.
It is unclear how that issue will be addressed at the one-day conference Tuesday, so Syrian officials decided to send a delegation led by Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad to express its reservations.
Most other Arab countries, including influential Egypt and Saudi Arabia, will send foreign ministers in a higher-level show of support for the Bush administration’s effort to broker an Israeli-Palestinian peace before it leaves office in just over a year.
The meeting is designed to inaugurate the first formal Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations in nearly seven years.
White House officials reacted coolly to the news of Syria’s acceptance and sought to play down any hope that the status of the Golan Heights would be a focus of the discussions. Briefing reporters, national security adviser Stephen Hadley said invitees were welcome to raise whatever issues they liked but that the focus of the conference would be Israeli-Palestinian peace.
Also in Washington, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni met over lunch at Rice’s residence.
The Bush administration has sought to rally Arab support for the meeting, particularly among Sunni Arab countries that, like Israel, fear Shiite Iran’s rising influence in the region. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are two such countries without formal diplomatic ties to Israel that will attend.
But pre-conference talks between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators did not produce a joint statement outlining the peace process to follow this week’s largely symbolic gathering. The failure highlights how contentious the talks will be when participants take up issues such as the final borders of a Palestinian state, the status of Jerusalem and the right claimed by Palestinian refugees to return to homes inside Israel.
Even though a majority of the 22-member Arab League agreed to attend, Arab officials have expressed deep reservations about how much the conference will achieve. Last week, Prince Saud al-Faisal, the Saudi foreign minister, warned that he would not take part in a “theatrical show.”