Rice faces uphill battle on new wasian push

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WASHINGTON, Sep 17 (Reuters) US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will try this week to cajole Israelis and Palestinians to take bold steps ahead of a US peace conference this year but experts predict an uphill battle.

Rice is set to arrive in Jerusalem on Wednesday for a brief trip aimed at getting Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to narrow their differences in time for the US-sponsored meeting, whose goals are still unclear even though it is expected in November.

''She (Rice) wants to see what she can do to move that process forward,'' State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said on Monday.

''All of this is in an effort to lay the foundations for a successful international meeting.'' State Department officials say Rice might hold three-waynegotiations with the two leaders, who have met frequently in recent months, but that had not been pinned down yet.

Whether she meets them together, apart, in Jerusalem or in Ramallah, officials say Rice wants to see a commitment they can deliver enough at the conference to draw key players such as Saudi Arabia which is not interested in coming unless substantive issues are tackled.

But even before she left Washington, Olmert sought to lower expectations, saying yesterday he wanted a joint declaration rather than a binding deal to emerge at the conference.

Abbas wants a firmer ''framework agreement'' on the core issues of borders, Jerusalem, security and refugees and Arab diplomats said anything less would make it hard for countries such as Saudi Arabia to attend the conference.

CONFIDENCE CRISIS? McCormack declined to be drawn out on what Washington wanted to achieve this week or at the conference, but he said Rice would continue pounding the issue in a ''methodical, persistent'' way.

Rice is expected to return to the region early in October.

''There are all sorts of different tags that people want to apply to this,'' he said when asked about a joint declaration or a framework agreement.

''What she wants to do is to try to get the parties together and to start working on ways in which they might come together in a concrete fashion to try to push forward understandings about how a two-state solution might emerge,'' McCormack said.

Arab diplomats say all sides, including Washington, need to start showing results if there is to be confidence in the conference, which is expected to be held in the United States.

''It's important to put together a conclusive document. We don't think a skimpy declaration will be enough,'' said Egypt's ambassador to the United States, Nabil Fahmy.

''The clearer the objective the more people will participate,'' he said.

Middle East expert, Jon Alterman, said by merely announcing the conference, the Bush administration had raised expectations.

''People don't have a date, they don't have a venue, they don't know what the agenda is,'' said Alterman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think-tank.

''This does not have the signs of a big initiative.'' Another Middle East expert Judith Kipper advised Rice, whom Arabs accuse of siding too often with Israel, to be tougher on both leaders, saying she expected prickly talks this week.

''This is not rocket science,'' said Kipper, director of Middle East programs at the Institute of World Affairs. ''It has to be clear to the parties that 'kids, the gig is up. you are both weak, you need peace, the situation is untenable.''' REUTERS AM AS2200

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