"I hope the Annapolis conference allows us to launch serious negotiations that will resolve all the core problems and eventually lead us to a solution of two nations for the two peoples," Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said late Saturday night just moments before taking off to the United States. The Israeli delegation
to the US-led peace summit at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland also includes Foreign Affairs Minister Tzipi Livni and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who will be traveling separately.
Jerusalem officials have warmly welcomed the recent decision made by the Arab League to endorse the conference and delegates from key Arab nations have already confirmed their attendance. As for Syria, sources have indicated that Damascus' final decision will be announced on Sunday.
Olmert broached the subject before leaving, saying that Israel has time and again expressed its willingness to have Syria join the Annapolis table. When asked about direct talks with Damascus, Olmert replied that "should the conditions for negotiations with Syria ripen – I would support such action. And I have said this countless times."
The prime minister said however that he does not believe that the Americans have promised Syria anything in exchange for their participation.
Earlier in the evening, a senior political source told Ynet that Israel's stance on the matter was largely indifferent: "If the Syrian's decide to come or stay away, it doesn't really matter, it will be their problem.
"Damascus needs to decide if it wants to be partner to the evolution of the region or not. The entire world is watching them now."
Meanwhile on Saturday Olmert conducted a series of phone calls to world leaders as Israel seeks to solidify its foreign backing before the talks begin. Among those Olmert spoke with are Russian President Vladimir Putin, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Jordanian King Abdullah II, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
The leaders assured Olmert they supported the conference and would continue to support the peace process after Annapolis as well. Olmert for his part clarified that there would be no concrete negotiations at the conference and that those would be launched immediately following the delegation's return. The prime minister set a tentative timetable for the negotiations and said he hoped all issues would be ironed out sometime during 2008.
Livni heads diplomatic front
Several short hours after the Israeli delegation lands in Washington Livni will already be sitting down with US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. As Israel's top negotiator, Livni will be the chief point of contact with Rice is scheduled to meet with her several times over the course of the delegation's four-day stay.
Livni will also meet with US President George W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley.
Later on Sunday morning Livni is also expected to attempt a last-ditch diplomatic effort to agree on a final
draft of the much-hyped yet decidedly elusive joint political statement with the Palestinian team.
Senior aides to Livni said the sides were largely in agreement on most points but have so far been unable to bridge the question of arbitration in the event of future disagreements as well as how the Palestinian Authority plans to combat terrorism, particularly in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip.