RAMALLAH, West Bank -- Scrambling to shape an agenda for a fall peace conference, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice pressed Israeli and Palestinian leaders yesterday to start tackling the core issues impeding settlement of their decades-old conflict.
But Israeli officials told Rice it was too soon to discuss "final status" issues, in part because their negotiating partner, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, has yet to prove capable of stopping attacks on Israel by armed Palestinian groups.
With Israel balking, the best Rice could achieve during her visit to the region this week was an understanding that the parties will first try to reach an "agreement of principles" about the nature of a future Palestinian state.
Rice held two days of meetings in Ramallah and Jerusalem to prepare for an international conference that President Bush has called for the fall. No date or venue has been set, and Rice came to the region pressing for agreements that can be sealed there.
"The president of the United States has no desire to call people together for a photo opportunity," Rice said. "This is to call people together so that we can really advance Palestinian statehood."
The Bush administration has been trying to use Abbas' recent split with the Islamic movement Hamas to press Israel into full-scale peace talks. In announcing his initiative last month, Bush said he wants leaders of moderate Arab states to attend the peace conference and build support for a settlement that would bolster Israel's security in the region.
In Saudi Arabia on Wednesday, Rice heard its foreign minister set a precondition for Saudi attendance: The conference must address final status issues that have long frustrated peace negotiators.
Those issues include the fate of refugees who fled before or during the 1948 Middle East war, the final status of Jerusalem, the borders of a future Palestinian state and the dismantling of Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
An Israeli government statement said Prime Minister Ehud Olmert shared her hope that the conference "will be serious and meaningful." But he has indicated no willingness to discuss anything beyond a set of principles defining the character of a future Palestinian state, its government institutions, economy and customs arrangements with Israel.