RAMALLAH, Oct 15 (Reuters) Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice tried today to push Palestinians and Israelis toward a middle ground in drafting a joint document seen as key to the success of a US-hosted peace conference this year.
After meeting Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Rice said the document should ''seriously and substantively'' address the core issues of the conflict -- a sharp contrast with Israeli hopes to keep it as vague as possible.
However, she also played down Palestinian calls for a timeframe to resolve the thorniest issues in the dispute such as borders, the future of Jerusalem and the fate of millions of Palestinian refugees.
Rice made the comments as she shuttled between Israeli and Palestinian officials during a four-day visit to the region to lay the groundwork for the meeting that the United States plans to hold in Annapolis, Maryland in late November.
In a trip that is unusually long for the US secretary of state, Rice appeared to try to quell concerns that the Bush administration is only paying lip service to Israeli-Palestinian peace after years of what critics regard as relative neglect.
''The president has decided to make this one of the highest priorities of his administration,'' she said, calling a Palestinian state ''absolutely essential'' not just to Israelis and Palestinians but also to the US national interest.
''We, frankly, have better things to do than invite people to Annapolis for a photo-op,'' she added, for the first time publicly confirming the planned location for the meeting.
Both Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, whom Rice met on Sunday, have said they hope the conference will be a launching point for formal talks on Palestinian statehood.
But Olmert, who faces right-wing resistance in his cabinet, has called for a broadbrush document and rejected Abbas's calls for a timeframe for resolving thorniest issues.
Abbas repeated those demands today, telling reporters: ''We are working hard to formulate a joint document with the Israeli side that defines the fundamental status for a solution of final status issues such as Jerusalem, borders, settlements, refugees, security, water and joint relations.'' DIRTY HANDS Rice would not be drawn on whether she thought the two sides were getting closer on the joint document.
In a hint of some movement on the Israeli side, Olmert appeared to suggest during a speech to parliament that Israel would consider handing over outlying Palestinian neighbourhoods of Jerusalem in a future peace deal.
Israeli and Palestinian negotiating teams met later in the day to continue trying to draft the paper. Olmert has appointed Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who has cautioned against moving too fast on core issues, as chief negotiator.
Israel and the Palestinians failed to reach a final agreement on key aspects of their conflict in talks that collapsed in 2001 amid a surge in violence.
Both sides have voiced concern of another outbreak of fighting should the conference fail.
Washington is trying to lure key Arab state Saudi Arabia to attend the conference, amid calls by Riyadh for the meeting to deal with issues of substance.
Another goal is to win more support for Abbas, who has been weakened by the takeover of the Gaza Strip in June by Hamas Islamists opposed to his peace moves with Israel.
On her seventh trip to the region this year, Rice said she would not give up trying to bridge the gaps between Israel and the Palestinians ''until I've given my last ounce of energy and my last moment in office.'' Asked if she was ready to get her hands dirty, she laughed and said: ''I don't know how much dirtier I can get my hands.'' REUTERS RSA BST0022