The United States announced on Tuesday it will host a Middle East peace conference on Nov. 27 in Annapolis, Maryland, which Washington hopes will launch formal negotiations to create a Palestinian state.
In addition to Israel and the Palestinians, the United States invited about 40 countries, including Arab states Syria and Saudi Arabia which have no relations with Israel, to the meeting at the U.S. Naval Academy, the State Department said.
The militant Islamic Hamas organization, which controls the Gaza Strip and is viewed by Washington as a terrorist organization, will be excluded from the conference.
The meeting, President George W. Bush's most intense effort to resolve the six-decade-old conflict, faces many obstacles. They include the political weakness of both Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, struggling to maintain control of the West Bank against the Hamas challenge, and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
"The Annapolis conference will signal broad international support for the Israeli and Palestinian leaders' courageous efforts, and will be a launching point for negotiations leading to the establishment of a Palestinian state," U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said.
U.S. officials hope the talks will eventually lead to a Palestinian state even though officials from the two sides and U.S. diplomats working with them have yet to produce even an agreement on roughly how such negotiations are likely to proceed following the conference.
The peace process has been frozen for seven years since former U.S. president Bill Clinton tried to broker a final settlement near the end of his presidency in 2000, but negotiations collapsed and years of violence erupted.
U.S. officials said the two sides were making progress on a joint document they hope to present at Annapolis but it was unclear if this would provide details on the core issues -- borders, security, settlements, the status of Jerusalem and the fate of Palestinian refugees -- that have defeated previous efforts to end the conflict.
"This is but the beginning of a very, long road," former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright told Reuters. "I think the expectation (from the conference) should be pretty low."
With many Arab states skeptical about the prospects for the meeting, Bush sought to lay the groundwork, telephoning leaders such as Russian President Vladimir Putin and Saudi King Abdullah, the White House said.
Saudi Arabia, a key U.S. ally that sponsored a 2002 Arab peace initiative now attracting Israeli attention, has not officially replied to the invitation, the State Department said.
Arab foreign ministers are to meet in Cairo on Thursday to decide on their participation.
Syria reiterated on Tuesday that it would stay away unless the return of the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights is up for discussion. But the Israeli foreign minister said: "The Golan is not on the agenda at the moment."
Before the conference, Bush plans to hold separate meetings with Olmert and Abbas at the White House on Monday and will make brief remarks at a State Department dinner that evening that will include all those invited to Annapolis.
The following day, he will host a three-way meeting with the two leaders at Annapolis and deliver a speech. There will next be three closed-door, 90-minute working sessions on international support, Palestinian economic development and institution building and comprehensive Middle East peace.
More than 100 officials are expected to attend, including representatives from the Group of Eight industrial countries, the United Nations, the European Union and Middle East envoy and former British prime minister Tony Blair.
Arms for Abbas
Meanwhile, in Occupied Jerusalem, Israel approved the transfer of a shipment of armored vehicles and ammunition to Abbas's security forces, Israeli officials said on Wednesday.
The shipment, which includes ammunition and 25 lightly armored vehicles, will be used in the restive West Bank city of Nablus in an attempt to bolster Abbas against Hamas Islamists who seized control of the Gaza Strip in June.
Israel has provided earlier shipments of vehicles and ammunition in coordination with the U.S. government and earlier this month allowed more than 300 members of the Palestinian National Security forces to deploy in Nablus as part of a Palestinian campaign to improve law and order.
"In the event that additional Palestinian forces will be deployed in other Palestinian cities, Israel will favorably consider the entry of 25 more vehicles for security purposes," an Israeli government official said.