Rice back in Israel after Egypt talks

A034374012.jpgUS Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice flew back to Israel on Tuesday to resume intense preparations for a looming Middle East summit after securing cautious Egyptian support for the conference.She is to hold a second round of talks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert today after one day of talks in Cairo on her seventh visit to the region this year.

Rice’s intense shuttle diplomacy is seeking to advance the stalled Middle East peace process after nearly seven years of deadlock and to prepare for an international Israeli-Palestinian meeting in the US next month.

Following talks with Rice in Cairo on Tuesday, Egypt said it was encouraged about the prospects of the Middle East meeting.

“We are encouraged by what [Rice] said and we promised to help her and help other parties reach this objective, which is launching negotiations leading to a Palestinian state,” said Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul Gheit.

“The secretary helped us today to understand the American position and she shed lots of light on American efforts between the Israeli and Palestinian parties,” he said during a news conference with Rice.

Rice described her talks as “very fruitful.” On Monday, Abul Gheit had suggested it might be better to delay the talks, slated to be held in Annapolis, Maryland, if a “substantive and positive document” were not already on the table.

Rice dismissed suggestions of delaying the conference, saying “we have not set a date for the meeting so it’s a little hard to postpone something for which you have not set a date.” A State Department official said Rice had “made some progress here [in Egypt], no question about that” in winning Egyptian support for the conference, which has been greeted with widespread scepticism in the Arab world.

“They [the Egyptians] know the indicators well so when they say they are discouraged or encouraged I think it is a pretty good barometer,” the official told reporters travelling with Rice on the plane from Cairo to Tel Aviv.

Although the Israelis and Palestinians disagree over what exactly should be on the table at the US-sponsored conference, Rice said on Monday that a two-state solution to the decades-old conflict was essential.

“Frankly it is time for the establishment of a Palestinian state,” she said after four hours of talks with Abbas in the occupied West Bank.

But Abul Gheit also insisted that all parties should seek to avoid the repetition of various peace conferences held since Egypt signed a peace deal with Israel in 1979 which failed to lead to a Palestinian state.

“This is an element of the past that should not be repeated,” he said.

The US has still not set a date for the conference, with Rice saying simply “there are only two months left this fall, that’s November and December, so we are working very urgently towards getting to that meeting.

Israeli and Palestinian disagreement on the content of a joint document, which negotiating teams are drawing up to serve as a basis for the talks, has been seen as a possible cause for delay.

The Palestinians want a detailed agreement and timeframe for implementing solutions to the thorniest issues in the conflict, while the Israelis want a more vague document with core issues left until after the conference.

Key issues are those of a future Palestinian state’s borders, the status of Jerusalem, Palestinian refugees, Jewish settlements and water.

But Olmert and Rice oppose a timetable for solving the thorniest problems of the conflict.

Reflecting the conference’s limited scope, Rice said on Monday that control of the strategic Golan Heights which Israel captured from Syria in 1967 would also not be on the agenda.

She told Israeli television that “comprehensive” peace in the region included a “solution to Israel’s problems with Syria”, but that the upcoming meeting would focus on the Israeli-Palestinian track.

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