Rice meets Abbas in search of conference accord

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RAMALLAH, West Bank, Sep 20 (Reuters) US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice assured Palestinians today that Washington intended a West Asian peace conference to put them firmly on the road towards statehood.

However, she gave no specifics nor any sign, after talks in the occupied West Bank with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and in Israel, of progress in forging a common position that would be presented to the international gathering.

Israeli and US officials insisted progress was being made on organising a substantive meeting. One said that a lack of public comment was partly to shield the process from domestic politics on both sides.

Rice gave no details on who might attend the conference or whether the Israelis and the Palestinians would be able to draw up a document in time for the meeting, expected to take place in mid-November in the United States.

''What kind of document comes out of these discussions is something they will have to work out,'' said Rice, adding that she hoped it would lead to ''serious negotiations for the establishment of a Palestinian state as soon as possible''.

Making her sixth trip to the region this year, she told a news conference: ''I will work, I know that the president (Abbas) and (Israeli) Prime Minister (Ehud) Olmert will work, and that their teams will work very aggressively, very urgently, to lay the groundwork for a successful meeting.'' Olmert, who has been meeting Abbas regularly ahead of the conference that Rice said must be ''substantive'', has cautioned against seeking more than a declaration of principles for establishing a Palestinian state.

But Abbas has made clear he wants a deal that goes beyond previous agreements on the broad outlines of how the 60-year-old conflict, revolving around borders and the future of Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees, can be resolved.

The Palestinian leader told the news conference he wanted ''an agreement with a clear timeframe'' for implementation.

Rice reiterated that US President George W Bush, who is set to meet Abbas on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly next week, had no intention of convening a West Asia conference that would serve only as a ''photo-op''.

''We have many other things to do,'' said Rice. The United States is bogged down in the war in Iraq.

After her talks with Abbas, Rice ended her two-day visit by seeing Olmert for a second time. A senior US official said Rice had not gone to present a plan to Olmert but rather to ''wrap up the visit''.

''ENEMY'' GAZA At the news conference, Abbas said Israel's decision yesterday to declare the Hamas-run Gaza Strip an ''enemy entity'' in the wake of frequent cross-border rocket attacks would ''complicate further an already tense situation on the ground''.

The West Bank-based Palestinian 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 Abbas's Fatah faction and rival group Hamas which seized control of the coastal territory in fighting in June.

Rice said Washington shared Israeli opposition to Hamas but wanted humanitarian supplies to continue.

Olmert, his ratings low, is under pressure in his coalition not to make major concessions. Today, his centrist Kadima party was convulsed in angry debate over whether he might give Arabs control of parts of Jerusalem -- one of the core issues in the 60-year-old conflict.

The conference forms a major part of Bush's strategy to promote stability in the region before he leaves office in a little over a year.

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.

Rice expects to return to the region early next month.


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