Egypt urges US action before Mideast conference

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NEW YORK, Sep 21 (Reuters) Egypt's foreign minister warned today that if US President George W Bush's planned West Asia peace conference fails, extremists among the Palestinians would be strengthened.

Egypt and other Arab countries have been pressing Washington to prepare a detailed agenda for the meeting, expected to take place in November near Washington.

Speaking at the Council on Foreign Relations, an influential think tank in New York, Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit said it was vital for Washington to do as much preparation as it did before the 1978 Camp David accords that led to a peace treaty between Israel and Egypt.

''We need to understand where we are heading and the end game -- the end game for the settlement between the Israelis and the Palestinians,'' he said.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas this week. She said she was optimistic they would agree to a joint document before the talks, but she did not think the document would include a timetable.

The drawing up of a document is a contentious issue for the conference, which still has vague goals and participants, venue and timing not yet announced.

The Palestinians are pushing for a firm framework agreement looking at the future of Jerusalem, borders, refugees and security while the Israelis are reluctant to rush, calling for a softer ''declaration of principles.'' Aboul Gheit said there were plenty of discussions between Israel and Abbas's administration, but it was unclear whether they were close to any kind of breakthrough.

''The window is there,'' he said, adding that it was vital to show Palestinians that real progress to a settlement was possible under Abbas's Fatah leadership in order to weaken the appeal of its rival Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip.

''If before the conference there will be a document that would convince people that both of them are able to do something, then you will find everybody jumping in and trying to help,'' Aboul Gheit said.

''If, on the other hand, we would not see that situation, then by the end of the year it will be a very difficult situation, for the Palestinians mainly, and the extremist elements among the Palestinians would win the day,'' he said.

Bush has promoted a two-state solution but the Israeli-Palestinian peace process has been stalled for most of his administration.

Arab diplomats say they suspect the United States sees the peace talks as a means to convey a false sense of momentum toward peace in the West Asia rather than as a serious attempt to settle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

REUTERS AK PM0101

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