CAIRO, Oct 16 (Reuters) Egypt said talks with U S Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice today restored its confidence in the Bush administration's plans for a conference this year on peace between Israelis and Palestinians.
''We are encouraged because she (Rice) says she is determined ... to have a breakthrough during the remaining year of this administration,'' said Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit.
''We have to believe them. I cannot doubt them ... What we heard gave us lots of confidence,'' added the minister, who said on Monday it might be necessary to postpone a Middle East peace conference expected by the end of the year.
Rice said: ''President (George W) Bush has made it a high priority, one of his highest priorities, to try to lead to the establishment of a Palestinian state... We are going to put maximum effort into fulfilling all of our obligations.'' A senior U S official travelling with Rice said she had made progress in mustering Egyptian support for the meeting, making it easier to mobilise broader Arab backing.
''You want them (the Egyptians) ahead of the rest of the relatively silent Arab world because otherwise you will never bring the rest of them along. This is key to moving this thing along,'' added the official, who asked not to be named.
Rice and Aboul Gheit were speaking at a news conference after Rice had talks with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who like other Arab leaders had cast doubt on whether the United States has done enough to lay the groundwork for the meeting.
As Egypt stepped back from its scepticism about U S peace efforts, the U S secretary of state took a softer than usual line on the Egyptian government's recent crackdown on its political opponents and the independent press.
Rice visited Egypt after two days trying to persuade Israel and Palestinian leaders to narrow their differences on a common document as the basis for the peace conference.
But analysts say that the United States has done far less preparatory work than it did for the Madrid peace conference in 1991 and that neither the Israeli or Palestinian leaders have a strong domestic constituency for bold peace steps.
The Palestinians and their Arab allies want the meeting to produce detailed agreement on long-term disputes such as borders and the status of Jerusalem. The Israelis have spoken of a declaration of principles which may not contain much detail.
TIMEFRAME OR TARGET DATE Aboul Gheit said there must be a target date for completing negotiations after the peace conference, avoiding the long delays which dogged talks after the Madrid meeting.
''That experience must not be be repeated. We must set for ourselves a timeframe... a target date -- six months, nine months, a year. But we cannot negotiate and carry on negotiating until the end of history,'' he added.
Rice also had talks with Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa, who said he felt encouraged. ''I felt a great desire on the American side to push things positively towards a serious peace conference,'' Moussa told reporters.
''But of course what we see or hear or read from the Israeli side is not reassuring. Are the Israelis serious? This is the question mark,'' Moussa added.
The Egyptian minister said Egypt needed talks with Israel and the United States on reinforcing the Egyptian armed presence on its side of the border with Gaza, which Israel complains receives arms and ammunition through tunnels from Egypt.
The Egyptian armed presence is regulated by the peace treaty of 1979, which was mediated by the United States, with a recent modification to let Egypt deploy more police there.
As on several previous visits, Rice and Abou Gheit aired their differences over the Egyptian government's treatment of its opponents but her criticism was muted.
''We do have concerns about political events here. I raised for instance our concerns about the detention of journalists...
We always raise these issues in the spirit of friendship and respect,'' Rice said.
Egyptian courts have sentenced 10 journalists to jail in the past five weeks for publishing offencse and the police have continued to detain membersof the oppsotiuon Muslim Brotherhood.
But Aboul Gheit retorted: ''I listen. However, my response is always: 'It is due process, it is the Egyptian legal process, and this government does not interfere.''' Reuters RSA RN2307