Rice Meets With Palestinian President

By: By Mohammed Daraghmeh
By: By Mohammed Daraghmeh

RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) -- Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice heard from Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Monday about his detailed expectations for a U.S.-hosted Mideast conference, which differ sharply from Israel's bare-bones position.

The Palestinians want to formulate a joint document with Israel, which would at least give an outline of how to solve the key disputes in the conflict. The document must be completed before the start of the conference, which would then be used as a launching pad for a resumption of peace talks, the Palestinians say.

In contrast, Israel says the conference could be held without such a document in hand, and staunchly opposes the Palestinian idea of setting a timeline for starting and completing negotiations.

Rice is on a four-day shuttle mission, trying to create some common ground ahead of the meeting. A State Department official hinted on Sunday that the conference, expected to take place in Annapolis, Md., in late November, might be postponed because of the gaps between the two sides.

Abbas aides said they were concerned that Rice cautioned over the weekend against expecting breakthroughs during her meetings with Israeli and Palestinian leaders. She also plans a trip to Cairo and talks in London with King Abdullah II of Jordan.

"With her statement yesterday, Dr. Rice reduced the Palestinian hopes for the conference," said Nabil Amr, an Abbas adviser. "We didn't expect her to come with this direction. The U.S. is a party to this conference, and we expect it to exert efforts to make it succeed."

Abbas would also complain to Rice about recent Israeli land expropriations in the West Bank, Amr said. "This spoils the positive atmosphere that accompanied the call for the fall conference," he said.

Amr referred to land seizures for a road project that Palestinians fear is intended to tighten Israeli control over strategic West Bank areas near Jerusalem. Israel says construction is not imminent and is meant to ease Palestinian movement.

Rice delivered a rare warning to Israel not to take any steps that might erode confidence in the peace process. "This is a very delicate time," she said Sunday. "It's just a time to be extremely careful."

On Monday, Abbas and Rice met at his West Bank headquarters in the city of Ramallah.

Her trip was briefly delayed by what turned out to be a false security alert. Her convoy stopped at an Israeli fire station after Israeli police said they spotted a suspicious vehicle near a crossing point into the West Bank. The convoy moved on after 15 minutes.

On Sunday, Rice had held a first round of talks with Israeli leaders.

A U.S. State Department official indicated afterward that the conference, called by U.S. President George W. Bush, might have to take place later than expected.

"This is going to take some time," the official told reporters on condition of anonymity to describe the private conversations. "This is going to require a lot of hands-on American diplomacy. These are really tough issues."

The Israelis and Palestinians are hoping to hammer out a joint statement outlining a common vision for a future peace agreement, which they hope to present at the conference.

The issues have defied solution for decades - borders for a Palestinian state and the extent of Israel's withdrawal from the West Bank, sharing Jerusalem and the fate of Palestinian refugees.

Heads of negotiating teams have been appointed only in recent days - former Palestinian premier Ahmed Qureia last week and Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni on Sunday - and the sides have only held one working meeting just six weeks before the tentative date of the Mideast gathering.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told his Cabinet on Sunday that he did not believe the joint statement was a prerequisite for the conference. He repeated that in his two-hour-plus meeting with Rice, according to his office.

The goal, Olmert said, "is to arrive at a joint statement during the international conference, even though the existence of such a statement was never a condition for holding this conference."

But the acting Palestinian foreign minister, Riad Malki, said his side would skip the conference without agreement on a statement.

"Without a document to resolve this conflict, we can't go to the conference next month," he said. "Olmert is looking for a public relations conference and one that will allow normalization with Arab countries. We will not help him in this."

Rice also met with Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who later issued a statement saying the military's freedom of movement in the West Bank was a "fundamental principle that must be demanded in the future as well."

The comments from Barak, who later headed to Washington for talks with the Bush administration, came despite long-standing Palestinian demands for a reduced Israeli presence in the West Bank.

Rice is on her third trip to the region since June, when the United States began to try to revive peace efforts after the Islamic militant Hamas seized control of the Gaza Strip.

That takeover has left Abbas in control of just the West Bank. His expulsion of Hamas from the government has, in U.S. eyes, freed him to pursue a peace deal that would create a Palestinian state.

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