West Asia meeting will tackle ''critical issues''

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SHANNON, Ireland, Sep 19 (Reuters) US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said on Wednesday ''critical issues'' would be tackled at a US-led peace conference and called on Israelis and Palestinians to do more to bridge their differences.

Speaking en route to Jerusalem and the Palestinian Territories, Rice said she hoped her brief trip would build up momentum ahead of the conference.

Israeli-Palestinian disagreements over what to expect from the talks have cast a shadow over the conference, called by US President George W Bush after the Islamist Hamas group seized control of the Gaza Strip in June.

''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 refueling stop in Shannon.

''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,'' she added.

Rice, who will be in the West Asia for little more than 24 hours, wants to convince the Israelis and Palestinians to narrow their differences on the core issues that divide them -- borders, Jerusalem, refugees and security.

Even before she arrived, Israel tried to dampen expectations.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is pushing for a softer joint declaration rather than a binding deal to emerge at the US conference, which US officials say will probably take place in mid-November in the United States.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, under pressure from his Fatah Party not to attend the meeting, wants a firmer ''framework agreement'' on the core issues. Arab diplomats said anything less would make it hard for countries like Saudi Arabia to attend.

Israel has misgivings about dealing with Abbas, whose mandate has effectively been limited to the occupied West Bank since Hamas -- which is shunned by the West and has described the conference as doomed -- seized the Gaza Strip.

Despite the Abbas-Hamas schism, Palestinians demand a single state including both territories, captured by Israel in a 1967 war.

''SERIOUS'' Rice dismissed scepticism towards the conference, but declined to provide details over who would attend, when and where it would take place or what would make the agenda.

''I think everyone expects it 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,'' she added.

Rice's visit coincides with an apparent decline in tensions between Israel and Syria following an air strike by the Jewish state against its neighbour this month.

Olmert said this week he was willing to enter peace talks with Syria with no preconditions and that he had a lot of respect for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Syria has said it could retaliate for the September 6 violation of its territory. Damascus and North Korea have denied any nuclear cooperation, which some reports say provoked the Israeli strike.

Rice said the United States had not noted any change in ''destabilising'' behaviour by Syria in the West Asia.

She said the United States would not stand in the way of Syrian-Israeli peace talks but they could not be a substitute for negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

''As I have said many times, the Palestinians have waited long enough for their state and the Israelis have waited long enough for the security that will come from having a democratic neighbour,'' she said.

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.

She said such reports underlined the need to ensure that North Korea's nuclear reactors were shut down as well as all other aspects of its nuclear programme.

Reuters SYU RS0919

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