Abbas Puts Hopes in Moscow Conference

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas appealed Thursday for greater urgency in reaching peace in the Middle East, saying a conference planned for Moscow in June must "save the peace process."

"We have great hopes the conference will move forward the peace process between Palestinians and Israel and that it will lay the grounds for the overall peace process for the entire Middle East that will include Syria and Lebanon," Abbas said in a lecture the Moscow State Institute of International Relations.

Abbas told students that barriers to the peace process had arisen since talks in Annapolis, Maryland, in November. He did not elaborate.

Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Arye Mekel said Jerusalem had not yet decided whether it would participate in the conference, which Moscow would like to hold by the end June. He said a decision would be made once the date, agenda and list of participants are known.

That may become clear Friday, when Abbas is expected to meet with President Vladimir Putin at the end of his three-day visit. A Foreign Ministry spokeswoman said Thursday that preparations for the conference were under way but that no date had been set.

In the past, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has reacted coolly to the idea of a summit in Moscow, saying he wants to focus on direct negotiations with the Palestinians.

The conference in Moscow, which Russia proposed immediately after the Annapolis talks, would likely put a greater emphasis on bringing Israeli and Syrian leaders to the same negotiating table for the first time in eight years.

"Since the Annapolis conference we knew another stage would be needed," said Abbas, dressed in a blue robe and mortarboard after receiving an honorary doctorate. "We just need to agree on the format and program."

He said peace between Israel and Palestine was possible by the end of 2008 because "90 percent of our problems with Israel are already solved."

Russia is a member of the so-called Quartet seeking to broker Middle East peace, along with the United States, the European Union and the United Nations.

Representatives of the Quartet met Thursday at the U.S. Embassy in Amman, Jordan, to clarify "what needs to be done" to achieve Palestinian-Israeli peace, a diplomat said on condition of anonymity because he is not allowed to speak to the media.

Unlike other members of the Quartet, Russia recognizes the legitimacy of Hamas, the militant party that holds a majority in the Palestinian parliament. That may give Russia considerable influence as a mediator, observers say.

Hamas is unlikely, however, to be invited to the conference.

Abbas' visit to Russia is his fourth as Palestinian leader. He earned a doctorate in history at Moscow State University in the 1980s.

Before holding talks with Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and then Putin, Abbas will meet Patriarch Alexy II Friday, a Palestinian Embassy spokesman said.