Egypt: Mideast meeting likely in September

July 21, 2007 - 0:0

CAIRO, Egypt (AP) -- A Mideast peace conference called for by President Bush will likely be held in September on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly meeting in New York, the Egyptian foreign minister said.

Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit also said Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will discuss the conference's agenda with Arab foreign ministers July 31 in the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheik. ""Contacts that took place between the Egyptians and Americans indicate that this (Mideast peace) conference will be held in September on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly. But not necessarily in New York,"" Aboul Gheit said. ""Egypt's vision is that the meeting should handle a wide number of issues,"" he said at a press conference in Cairo. ""(That includes) launching the peace process in active negotiations between the Israeli and Palestinian parties."" Suleiman Awad, the spokesman for the Egyptian president, later told The Associated Press that it was not yet clear when or where the Mideast conference will be held. In Washington, the State Department said, ""There certainly hasn't been any date set."" ""We are still a little too early on to be able to have nailed the dates with that kind of precision,"" deputy spokesman Tom Casey said, adding: ""There hasn't been a venue settled on."" UN spokeswoman Michele Montas, asked whether the peace conference would take place on the sidelines of the General Assembly, said she could not confirm it. ""This is not organized by the UN,"" she said. ""As far as I know a number of things are going to be happening at the same time here. I don't know when it would be scheduled and we're not the ones organizing it."" Aboul Gheit's announcement came as a one-day meeting in Lisbon brought together the Mideast Quartet — United States, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations. It was the group's first meeting since the hardline Islamic group Hamas wrested control of the Gaza Strip from the more moderate Fatah last month. The power grab split the Palestinian leadership and placed yet another obstacle in the way of a broad Mideast peace deal. But it also prompted Israel and the West to seek ways to shore up beleaguered Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Bush proposed that an international gathering be held later this year, aimed at restarting peace talks. Hamas has rejected Bush's proposal for the peace conference, and Syria said the offer may be ""just words"" for now. Washington's close Arab allies welcomed the Bush proposal, but they stressed the importance of making a land-for-peace Arab peace plan first adopted in 2002 key to any talks. U.S. officials expressed hope that Arab countries, including moderate nations that do not have diplomatic relations with Israel, would attend, in an apparent reference to Saudi Arabia. With international backing, Abbas now heads an emergency government based in the West Bank. Hamas, which refuses to recognize Israel, remains isolated in Gaza. A 1991 Mideast peace conference in Madrid, sponsored by former President George H.W. Bush, paved the way for the Oslo peace accords and the establishment of the Palestinian Authority. But repeated stalemates have since left many skeptical that a repeat of that gathering could lead to any enduring breakthrough