US gearing up for Middle East talks

Rice says her brief trip to region will build momentum for US-led peace conference.

    Rice said "critical issues" would be discussed
    at the conference [AFP]

    "This international meeting is also going to be doing exactly that. This is not a matter just to declare that we all want to see a two-state solution."
     
    But there are disagreements between Israelis and Palestinians over what to expect from the talks.
     
    Ehud Olmert, the Israeli prime minister, is pushing for a softer joint declaration rather than a binding deal to emerge at the conference.
     
    Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president who is under pressure from his Fatah movement not to attend the meeting, wants a firmer "framework agreement" on core issues of borders, Jerusalem and refugees.
     
    Israel also has misgivings about dealing with Abbas, whose mandate has effectively been limited to the occupied West Bank since Hamas took over Gaza.
     
    Despite the West Bank-Gaza schism, most Palestinians demand a single state including both territories, captured by Israel in a 1967 war.
     
    Peace conference
     
    In Jerusalem, Rice is due to meet Olmert as well as other officials including Tzipi Livni, Israel's foreign minister, and Ehud Barak, the defence minister, as well as Benjamin Netanyahu, the leader of the opposition.
     
    In the West Bank town of Ramallah she is to meet Abbas and Salam Fayyad, the Palestinian prime minister.
     
    The US has not announced a date for its peace conference, though officials have suggested it will take place in November.
     
    Washington has also remained discreet on the countries it intends to invite.
     
    Rice did not provide details of who would attend, but said that the key would be to invite "everybody who ... has an interest in these issues, and I would include in that the parties, the regional states and a number of international actors - the Quartet for instance".
     
    Israeli air raid
     
    The secretary of state's visit to the region coincides with an apparent easing in tensions between Israel and Syria following an air attack by Israel against its neighbour this month.
     
    Syria has said it could retaliate for the September 6 violation of its territory.
     
    Olmert, though, said this week that he was willing to enter peace talks with Syria with no preconditions and that he had a lot of respect for Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president.
     
    Rice, though, said the US had not noted any change in "destabilising" behaviour by Syria in the Middle East.
     
    She declined to be drawn on the reports that North Korea was providing help to Syria with some sort of nuclear facility but said the Bush administration had "no illusions" about Pyongyang's proliferation activities.

    SOURCE: Agencies


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