Rice to meet Abbas in search of conference accord

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RAMALLAH, West Bank, Sep 20 (Reuters) Condoleezza Rice travels from Israel to meet Palestinian leaders today to try and break a logjam between the two sides before Washington hosts a major West Asia peace conference.

The US secretary of state has found growing interest in ''intensifying the dialogue'', a senior aide said, after she held talks with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in Jerusalem yesterday.

Rice, meeting Israeli President Shimon Peres before travelling to the West Bank city of Ramallah, said she saw ''a spirit and a desire to move towards peace'' among Israelis and Palestinians, but there were ''many obstacles to overcome''.

All sides have given little away on the specifics of their talks and details of the planned international gathering, expected to convene in mid-November or early December in Washington, remain unclear.

''It could range from zero to a full-blown agreement. They are not in a position yet to put a label on it,'' the senior State Department official told reporters when asked how Rice could reconcile seemingly contradictory Israeli and Palestinian views of what the conference might achieve.

''Labels are really not a very good way to capture what is going on,'' he said, adding: ''This appears to be a serious discussion about fundamental issues.'' Olmert, who will meet Rice again today after she has spoken with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, has cautioned against expecting more than a declaration of principles for establishing a Palestinian state.

Abbas has made clear he wants a deal that goes beyond previous agreements on the broad outlines of how the 60-year-old conflict can be resolved and sets a framework for resolving core disputes on borders, security and the status of Jerusalem and of Palestinian refugees from territory that is now Israel.

''ENEMY'' GAZA Rice may hear concerns from Abbas and his prime minister, Salam Fayyad, over Israel's decision yesterday to declare the Gaza Strip an ''enemy entity'', as well as about the pace of Israeli moves to ease movement for people in the West Bank.

Fayyad's government has already said it wants Washington to press Israel not to cut energy and other supplies to the 1.5 million people of Gaza, despite hostility between the leaders in the West Bank and the Hamas Islamists who seized power in the coastal enclave in June after routing forces loyal to Abbas.

Rice, who US officials said was unaware of Israel's plan when she flew in, said Washington shared Israeli opposition to Hamas but expected humanitarian supplies to continue.

She also said the internal Palestinian conflict should not jeopardise plans to found a single state in both the West Bank and Gaza.

The conference forms a major part of US President George W Bush's strategy to promote stability in the West Asia before he leaves office in a little over a year, ending a presidency marked by the violence in Iraq since the US invasion.

He has encouraged Arab states to attend but several have said they would do so only if they saw it producing agreement on fundamental issues for Palestinians. Also unclear is whether states regarded as hostile, notably Syria, should be invited.

Highlighting uncertainty surrounding the nature of the gathering, when asked whether Syria would be welcome Rice told a news conference simply: ''We haven't invited anyone yet.'' REUTERS SZ RAI1316

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