The US-brokered Annapolis peace conference was given a significant boost on Friday when heavyweight Saudi Arabia decided to send its foreign minister to the launch of the first peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians in seven years. Syria, Israel's most implacable Arab enemy, signaled that it was now also likely to attend.
Saudi Prince Saud al-Faisal said that he would be taking part in Tuesday's Maryland summit as part of an Arab "consensus" of support for the Palestinians -- despite near-universal gloom about the prospects of agreement on the toughest issues.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas urged fellow Arab leaders to come to Annapolis, arguing that there were prospects of negotiations with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on the creation of a Palestinian state within a year.
"We have a historic opportunity," Abbas told reporters in Cairo. "We are hoping that we will be together at the conference discussing all tracks, the Palestinian-Israeli track, the Syrian-Israeli track and the Lebanese track."
Saudi Arabia, home to the Muslim holy sites of Mecca and Medina as well as a quarter of world oil reserves, is Washington's closest ally in the Arab world. Its presence guarantees wide, if skeptical, Arab support for US President George W. Bush's initiative.
Syria's position remains unclear. It has been holding out for a reference to the Golan Heights, still occupied by Israel 40 years after the 1967 war.
"The United States has sent confirmation that it will include the Syrian-Israeli track ... the Golan ... on the Annapolis agenda," the official Syrian news agency quoted the foreign minister, Walid Moualem, as saying. "Syria will decide whether to attend or not in light of the agenda it receives."
Diplomats said consultations would continue over the weekend to secure US agreement to the demand from Damascus.
"I think the Americans will include the reference Syria wants because they can't afford not to have us all there," one senior Arab official said.
Unlike Egypt and Jordan, Saudi Arabia has no diplomatic relations with Israel.
"We were reluctant until today," Faisal said. "If not for the Arab consensus, we would not have decided to go. We are not prepared to take part in a theatrical show, in handshakes and meetings that don't express political positions."
Israeli and Palestinian negotiators have still not agreed a joint declaration for the conference but will continue talks in the US before the meeting.
Polls published yesterday showed most Israelis support Annapolis but few expect results. According to one poll, published by the Ma'ariv newspaper, up to 50 percent of the Israeli public think Olmert has no mandate to negotiate with the Palestinians because of his unpopularity over last year's war in Lebanon and the alleged corruption scandals that surround him.
As Olmert flies to the US tomorrow, Israeli police will reveal whether they will bring charges against him in connection with a banking scandal.
The Ma'ariv poll, which questioned 500 people, said 53 percent believed he was only going to Annapolis to improve his public standing, while 38 percent thought he wanted to make peace.
The same poll produced a mixed verdict on Abbas, with 48 percent saying they felt he wanted peace and 46 percent saying he did not. It found 56 percent of Israelis were in favor of evacuating some or all of the Jewish settlements in the West Bank.