"It's been at least six years since they talked about these issues..It seems wise to begin this ... informal discussion, to just really sit and talk about the issues."
 
"It's very clear what we mean by 'broader issues'. We mean what would lead to the establishment of a Palestinian state."
 
Rice said she would represent the United States in the summit, adding that George Bush, the US president, might participate in future peace-making session if initial discussions went well.

Hamas reservations

US officials said Abbas and Olmert had agreed to attend the session, to be held in three or four weeks, during their separate weekend meetings with Rice.

In Israel, Olmert confirmed the planned session with Rice and Abbas.

However Saeb Erekat, a senior aide to Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, could not confirm whether Abbas would attend.

Ismail Haniya expressed
his reservations [AFP]


But he said that "in principle" the Palestinians are prepared to take part.

However, Ismail Haniyeh, the Palestinian prime minister and leader of the Hamas movement, said Rice's visit could be "the most dangerous to the Palestinian cause," and was aimed at "securing the Israeli interest".

Haniyeh said the Bush administration would not pressure Israel to make "any core concessions" to the Palestinians.

Instead he said that the US would pressure Israel to make relatively symbolic concessions such as lifting travel restrictions on Palestinians and ensuring that tax revenues withheld by Israel would be transferred to Abbas to bolster his position.

Haniyeh said: "We view gravely what Rice is bringing and the political and security issues she is cooking up regarding the Palestinian situation," he said in a statement.

Hopes of easings tension

US diplomats said a preliminary session between Israelis and Palestinians, which would discuss broader issues, would aim to build confidence after years of fighting and rhetorical sniping.

Rice said: "It's very clear what we mean by 'broader issues,' we mean what would lead to the establishment of a Palestinian state."

Ahmed Aboul Gheit, Egypt's foreign minister, said Egypt is a potential host for the three-way meeting, which he suggested could ease tension and open a path to more substantive talks later.

Gheit said: "They have not been doing anything but fighting each other for the last six years."

In Jordan on Sunday, King Abdullah II told Rice that he wanted Washington to apply as much diplomatic energy on the Israeli-Palestinian matter as on Iraq.

A Jordanian government statement said Abdullah: "called on the United States to actively push for a revival of Palestinian-Israeli peace negotiations that would lead to the establishment of a viable, independent Palestinian state."

Rice, on a lengthy Middle East tour, later left Egypt for Saudi Arabia where she is expected to discuss Iran and Iraq with senior Saudi leaders on Tueday.