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U.S. invites 40 to peace talks

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The United States invited more than 40 countries, including Syria, to participate in Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

The State Department announced the invitations for the Nov. 26-28 peace conference on Tuesday night. Invitees include much of the European Union, most Arab nations, large Muslim nations, Russia, Japan, China and major nongovernmental organizations. They are expected to respond by the weekend; the Arab League is convening a meeting Thursday to consider the invitations.

President Bush called Saudi King Abdullah on Tuesday to appeal to him to attend or to send a senior cabinet minister. Such a presence would represent a breakthrough in Israel-Arab relations that Israel’s government hopes will help sway Israeli public opinion toward major concessions on borders and Jerusalem.

The invitation to Syria comes despite the Bush administration’s efforts to isolate the Bashar Assad regime because of its attempts to dominate Lebanon and its backing of anti-Israel terrorists. David Welch, the State Department’s top Middle East specialist, would not count out Syria raising its own peace agenda with Israel, including its demand that Israel agree to return the Golan Heights as part of a deal.

“We’re affording a platform here for responsible opinion, and they’re entitled to express their views and their national interests as they see them,” Welch said. “We won’t turn off the microphone.”

The emphasis, however, will be on Israeli-Palestinian talks. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas will lead their respective delegations. President Bush will introduce the participants at a State Department dinner in Washington on Monday evening. On Tuesday, the meeting will adjourn to Annapolis, Md., and major players will make speeches.

Participants then will choose from three sessions: “Demonstrating International Support for the Bilateral Process”; “Looking at Economic Development, Institutional Reform and Capacity Building”; and “Comprehensive Peace.”

On Wednesday, the Israeli and Palestinian delegations return to Washington, possibly for meetings with Bush. The Bush administration hopes the meeting will end with a joint Palestinian-Israeli statement outlining a process that will lead to the establishment of a Palestinian state.

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