Rice says Mideast talks to be a `serious effort'

October 16, 2007|By New York Times News Service...

JERUSALEM -- It has officially been a secret of U.S. diplomacy, if not a particularly well-kept one: the time and place of the international conference called by President Bush to begin negotiating peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice lifted the secrecy yesterday and, perhaps, nudged the process forward.

"We have better things to do than invite people to Annapolis for a photo op," Rice said after meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, in the West Bank.

Rice also mentioned "November document," setting a deadline of sorts for the Israelis and Palestinians to agree on a written document to serve as the basis for the talks. The conference is expected to begin Nov. 26, Israeli officials said.

With time running out on his presidency, Bush has called for an international conference to be held in the United States this fall as part of a renewed push to settle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, trying to leave a legacy that has enticed and eluded his predecessors.

Rice, on her seventh trip to the region this year, described Bush's initiative as "the most serious effort to end this conflict in many, many years." In some of her strongest language yet, she said, "Frankly, it's time for the establishment of a Palestinian state."

Yet Rice's initial talks during a four-day visit to the Middle East showed how difficult it remains to get the two sides to agree even on the terms of a meeting.

Appearing with Rice at the Palestinian Authority compound in Ramallah - which was battered by Israeli forces in 2002 as Abbas' predecessor, Yasser Arafat, was holed up inside and has been partly rebuilt - Abbas repeated that even the initial document must address the most contentious issues.

Those include the borders and capital of a future state, the return of refugees, the dismantling of settlements and water rights. And he insisted that a detailed document be concluded before the conference could begin.

"Everything should be clear in the conference," Abbas said, and the negotiations to follow should "not be open-ended."

Israel's prime minister, Ehud Olmert, has expressed a willingness to address the criteria for a peace deal only in the broadest terms.

Still, he has met with Abbas several times to discuss the document. And, in what officials described as a testing of the domestic waters, Olmert addressed one of the core issues yesterday, implying that he would be ready to give up some outlying Palestinian neighborhoods of East Jerusalem.

"Was it necessary to also add the Shuafat refugee camp, Sawakhra, Walaje and other villages to Jerusalem and define them as part of Jerusalem?" he said in the Israeli parliament, referring to parts of the city Israel absorbed after seizing East Jerusalem and the West Bank in 1967. "I must therefore admit it is possible to raise legitimate questions."

Olmert, a former mayor of Jerusalem, has made similar suggestions before, but this is the first time he has done so in such an official setting.

After meeting with Abbas, Rice declined to reveal her private discussions with Israeli and Palestinian officials but suggested that neither side would get its way in their demands for the joint statement.

"I am not certain that a timetable that says we have to complete X by Y time is where we want to go," she said when asked about the Palestinian demand for deadlines.

"We're talking about ways to demonstrate continued momentum if and when they begin formal negotiations, but we haven't come to any conclusions at this point," Rice said.

She also said the joint statement "does not have to be detailed in order to be serious [or] substantive."

Despite Israeli reservations, she said, the document would have to include references to the final status issues.

Rice and other administration officials sought to tamp down expectations of a breakthrough on this trip. She is expected to make one or two more trips before the conference in Annapolis, which, besides Israelis and Palestinians, is expected to include leaders from throughout region.

Rice is to travel today to Egypt to meet with Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul Gheit, who said yesterday that the conference should be postponed if no agreement is reached on "a substantive and positive document."

"There's a reason we have not yet issued invitations," Rice said later in Jerusalem.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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