Rice faces uphill battle on new West Asia 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.

''This is an important moment and we think we can make some progress here,'' said David Welch, the State Department's key negotiator between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

''I think for the first time in really quite some time, I really do feel there is an opportunity,'' he told reporters.

Rice was considering holding three-way negotiations with the two leaders, who have met frequently in recent months, but Welch said she was more likely to hold parallel discussions this time round.

''We don't rule out the trilateral format in the near future,'' Welch added.

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 on Sunday 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? Welch declined to provide details on the conference or what kind of document, if any, might be produced ahead of that meeting or during Rice's discussions this week.

''The parties themselves are gaining, slowly but surely, the confidence necessary to take on what they see as the key things that separate them,'' said Welch, who refused to elaborate.

But 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.

West Asia expert Jon Alterman, said by merely announcing the conference, the Bush administration had raised expectations which if they were not realized would create more tensions on the ground.

''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 West Asia 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 RC BST0259

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