Rice tries to close gaps on Mideast peace
2 sides at odds over document
JERUSALEM - Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice opened an intense round of Mideast shuttle diplomacy yesterday, struggling to bring Israelis and Palestinians close enough to make a planned US-hosted peace conference worthwhile.
With the two sides at bitter odds over an outline of a peace agreement that would be presented at next month's conference, Rice sought to lower expectations her mission would finalize preparations for the gathering.
Underscoring Rice's less-than-optimistic assessment, Israeli and Palestinians traded shots about the other's commitment to peace even as she arrived in the region. During her four-day visit, she will bounce between Israel and the West Bank, seeking a consensus.
Her hope is to close the gap as Israel and the Palestinian Authority try to forge an outline of an eventual peace deal and produce a joint statement for the conference. It is expected to held in Annapolis, Md., in late November.
But after Rice's first series of meetings, a senior State Department official hinted that the date could slide as the lead negotiators for the two sides will begin only this week to try to craft the document.
"This is going to take some time," the official told reporters on condition of anonymity in order to describe the private conversations. "This is going to require a lot of hands-on American diplomacy. These are really tough issues."
On her flight from Moscow, where she held talks with Russian leaders, Rice said she did not believe her visit would clear the way for that statement or make enough progress to allow conference invitations to go out.
"I don't expect out of these meetings that there will be any particular outcome in the sense of breakthroughs on the document," she told reporters on her plane. She said intends to return at least once to the Mideast before the conference.
Rice said she wanted to "help them narrow differences that they may have about what the nature of this document has to be."
"I do think it's important that they address the core issues in some fashion," she said. "I also think it's important that the document be substantive enough that it points out that there is a way forward toward the establishment of a Palestinian state."
Israel is pressing for a vaguely worded document that would give it more room to maneuver. The Palestinians want a detailed preliminary agreement with a timetable for creating a Palestinian state as well as specifics on borders, sovereignty over disputed Jerusalem, and a solution for Palestinian refugees - the "final status" issues.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told his Cabinet 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.
Ahead of her meetings, 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. "It's just a time to be extremely careful."
Her comments referred to the renewal of 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.
But those assertions did little to ease concerns. Shortly after Rice landed, Israeli officials said they had decided to resume an archeological dig near a hotly disputed Jerusalem holy site, drawing more Palestinian charges that Israel is trying to scuttle the conference.
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.