LONDON -- Israel and the Palestinians can pick any agenda they want for a preliminary peacemaking summit with the United States, but it is too early to tackle the toughest issues, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said yesterday.
"We're not yet at the point where I think we can determine what we would do about formal negotiations, when and if" they can occur, Rice said at the close of a week's trip to the Middle East and Europe. "It's really a time to try to get the parties into more of a confidence-building phase and we'll see what comes after that."
Rice said her three-way meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas would probably take place in the Middle East in the first half of February.
Speaking to reporters traveling with her, Rice said that session will follow a gathering in Washington of the international sponsors of a dormant, step-by-step peace plan called the "road map" that was to have led to Palestinian statehood by 2005.
She acknowledged that the 2003 plan's requirements had become something of an obstacle in restarting talks, but she said it remains the guideline.
"Everybody understands the obligations in it, but we'd gotten to a place that it was stalled," Rice said, "because if they weren't making progress on the first phase of the road map, then you couldn't talk about the end of the road map and what might lead to the establishment of a Palestinian state."
Rice said her talks with both leaders last weekend "broke through that."
Olmert and Abbas agreed to the three-way meeting, a symbolic advancement both of their relationship and the involvement of traditional peace broker Washington.
Olmert and Abbas are both politically compromised: Olmert by last summer's disappointing war in Lebanon and allegations of political corruption in his ranks, Abbas by his yearlong internal power struggle with Hamas radicals.
Abbas and Olmert inherited the 2003 plan agreed to by others. U S officials say it may be time to fine-tune some requirements in the plan and that an agreement between Abbas and Olmert about how to do that could be a first step toward larger accords.