JERUSALEM – Syria agreed to attend this week’s U.S.-sponsored Annapolis summit after Damscus received American and Israeli commitments the Golan Heights would be put on the table at the Israeli-Palestinian conference.

The Golan Heights is strategic mountainous territory that looks down on Israeli population centers, and was twice used by Syria to launch ground invasions into the Jewish state.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s office today welcomed Syria’s decision to attend the conference.

“Israel sees in a positive way the high-ranking participation of Syria in a conference which is clearly about the Israeli-Palestinian track, but could open additional avenues to peace in the Middle East,” said Miri Eisin, a spokeswoman for Ehud Olmert, who arrived in Washington today.

SANA, the state-run news agency in Damascus, said Syria will be represented at the conference by Deputy Foreign Minister Faysal Mekdad.

At the Annapolis summit, Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas are slated to issue a joint declaration that is widely expected to outline a Palestinian state to be created in the Gaza Strip, West Bank and eastern sections of Jerusalem.

Israeli and U.S. officials agreed the Golan Heights would not be mentioned in Israel’s declaration of intentions but that Syria could bring up the issue during the third session of the conference slated to include the wider Arab community. That session was renamed from “the Arab states’ involvement in the process” to “the effort to achieve a comprehensive regional peace” so as to make way for Syria’s expected statements regarding the Golan.

Israeli Foreign Minister Tzippy Livni told reporters although the Golan will not be formally on the agenda, Arab participants at Annapolis could raise “whatever issues they want.”

While Israel is not expected to commit itself to evacuating the Golan Heights at Annapolis, the mere mentioning of the strategic territory at the international summit could serve to put the issue back on the bargaining table.

Syria is in a military alliance with Iran and is accused by the U.S. of supporting the insurgency in Iraq and generating instability in Lebanon. Israel says Syria regularly ships Iranian rockets and weaponry to the Lebanese Hezbollah militia. The chiefs of the Hamas and Islamic Jihad Palestinian terror groups are based in Damascus. Syria is also accused by Israel of holding Israeli soldiers missing in action, including Zachary Baumel, a Brooklyn-born Israeli soldier who was captured by Syrian forces 23 years ago.

Syria was invited to the summit without any preconditions or pledges to cease its purported backing of terrorism or its alleged meddling in Lebanese affairs.

To interview Aaron Klein, contact Tim Bueler Public Relations by e-mail, or call (530) 401-3285.

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