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Prime minister Ehud Olmert said on Tuesday that the U.S.-hosted Middle
Prime minister Ehud Olmert said on Tuesday that the U.S.-hosted Middle East peace conference will help Israel establish diplomatic relations with Arab countries.

Talks in Annapolis, Maryland, are set to begin on Tuesday involving Arabs and Israelis, Mideast mediators, and international organizations. The main goal of the conference is to restart talks on Palestinian statehood.

Egypt and Jordan are currently the only Arab nations that have diplomatic relations with Tel Aviv.

Israel's Haaretz daily reported that during his meeting on Tuesday with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, Ehud Olmert said he did not expect an immediate improvement in Israeli-Arab relations, but hoped for goodwill gestures following the conference, such as the opening of consular offices in Israel.

"Every Arab or Muslim state which participates in the Annapolis summit should demonstrate its support of the process in this way," Olmert was quoted by the paper as saying. Olmert asked Ban to convey his message to Arab leaders and use his leverage to promote the idea.

The Annapolis conference will kick off with a meeting between U.S. President George W. Bush, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, and the Israeli premier, who will fly in helicopters to the U.S. Naval Academy. The three leaders will depart after addressing the conference, and meetings will continue at the foreign ministerial level, to be presided over by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

Sixteen Arab nations, including Saudi Arabia, agreed to send their foreign ministers to the conference following major diplomatic efforts by Washington.

"Arab countries look to the peace process in the Middle East with optimism and expect the Annapolis conference to have a lasting effect, and to lead to the start of peace talks with a specified timetable of settlement efforts in the Arab-Israeli conflict," Arab media quoted Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul Gheit as saying in Washington. He also said the Arab states would form "a united front" in Annapolis.

Palestinians and Israelis have so far failed to coordinate a final document for the conference. The Palestinian leadership has insisted on specific agreements, while Tel Aviv has rejected binding commitments.

Arab states have pledged to improve relations with Israel after it withdraws from Palestinian lands occupied in 1967, as well as from Syria's Golan Heights, and until an independent Palestinian state is formed with its capital in East Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees are brought home.

Haaretz quoted Olmert as saying in the U.S. that Abbas must bring radical Islamists in the West Bank under control, as well as in the Gaza Strip, which has been controlled by Islamist group Hamas since June, as a condition for further peace talks.

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