Rice: West Asia meeting will tackle ''critical issues''

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TEL AVIV, Sep 19 (Reuters) US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice today said ''critical issues'' would be tackled at a US-led peace conference that Palestinians hope will move them closer to statehood.

Speaking to reporters on her flight to Israel, she said she hoped her brief trip would build momentum ahead of the gathering and bridge differences on core matters -- borders, Jerusalem, refugees and security.

''Everyone expects it (the conference) to be serious and substantive and everybody expects it to address critical issues.

We don't expect anything less,'' she said.

''The idea that somehow the president of the United States would call an international meeting so that we could all have a photo-op is very far-fetched,'' said Rice, who will be in the West Asia for little more than 24 hours.

After landing in Tel Aviv, Rice planned to meet Israeli Vice Premier Haim Ramon and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni in Jerusalem before evening talks with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. She sees Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas tomorrow.

Israeli-Palestinian disagreements over what to expect from the talks have cast a shadow over the conference, expected to be held in the Washington area around mid-November.

Abbas, under pressure from his Fatah Party to skip the meeting unless an outcome putting Palestinians firmly on the road to statehood is assured, wants a ''framework agreement'' with a timetable for implementation.

Arab diplomats have said anything less would make it hard for countries like Saudi Arabia to attend.

DOUBTS Israel has doubts whether Abbas, whose mandate has effectively been limited to the occupied West Bank since Hamas Islamists seized the Gaza Strip in June, can push through any peace deal or deliver on security pledges.

Olmert, weakened politically by last year's Lebanon war, is pushing for a softer joint declaration to emerge at the conference that US President George W Bush called in to try to revive peacemaking after Hamas's routing of Fatah in Gaza.

''We can't simply continue to say we want a two-state solution, we have got to start to move towards one,'' Rice told reporters before a refuelling stop in Shannon, in Ireland.

Charting a timeline, Yasser Abed Rabbo, a senior Abbas aide, said the Palestinians would seek the establishment of a ''follow-up committee'' after the conference to ''supervise final-status talks'' with Israel.

Six months after the international gathering, participants would reconvene to assess the results, Abbed Rabbo said.

Top Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said discussions with Rice would also focus on measures that Abbas wants Israel to take before the conference, such as easing travel restrictions in the West Bank and releasing Palestinian prisoners.

Israeli defence sources said Israeli officials would tell Rice 24 unmanned barriers in the West Bank would be removed initially.

If no security concerns arose, Israel would then remove one checkpoint manned by soldiers, the sources said, describing action that would fall far short of Palestinian expectations.

REUTERS SG KN1536

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