Rice says confident West Asia meeting will go ahead

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WASHINGTON, Oct 24 (Reuters) US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said TOday she was confident a West Asia peace conference would take place this year despite Israeli-Palestinian divisions and no commitment yet from the Saudis to attend.

Rice told US lawmakers there was still a lot of work to do ahead of the US-hosted conference, which has not yet been officially announced but is expected to take place in Annapolis, Maryland, in late November or early December.

The United States is pushing for key Arab states such as Saudi Arabia to go but Riyadh has held back on saying it will attend and is waiting to see what will be on the agenda.

''The Arab states have to be in on this from the ground floor. And we've tried to bring them in from the ground floor,'' said Rice when asked whether Saudi Arabia would go.

''We will be pressing very hard for our allies to help in this endeavor, because it will benefit, of course, the responsible Arab states if this conference is a success,'' she told the House of Representatives foreign affairs committee.

Saudi Arabia has said it will only attend if substantive issues are discussed, such as the future of Jerusalem, refugees and the contours of a future Palestinian state.

''I believe that we have some work to do still. We haven't issued any invitations, and so I don't expect that any will be accepted until we've actually issued them,'' Rice said.

Experts point to the weakness of both the Israeli and Palestinian leaders, particularly President Mahmoud Abbas whose territory is divided between Hamas-run Gaza and the West Bank dominated by his Fatah forces.

''A Palestinian leader is not -- no matter how strong, by the way -- a Palestinian leader is not going to be able to make the important compromises that will be needed without the support of these Arab states,'' said Rice.

PRESSURE ON EGYPT Rice was in the West Asia last week, meeting Israeli and Palestinian leaders in a bid to bridge differences and get both sides to agree on a statement ahead of the conference, which is aimed at laying the groundwork for negotiations on a Palestinian state.

''The goal is the establishment of a Palestinian state; not one born of terror, as I think it would have been in earlier times; not one that is unable to carry out its security responsibilities; not one that is not democratic and delivering for its people,'' she said.

The top US diplomat, who has made getting a settlement between the Israelis and the Palestinians her main goal in the remaining 15 months of the administration, said the United States was trying to show Palestinians that statehood was a reality that could happen.

''The parties themselves I think have recognized the importance of this moment in doing precisely that,'' she said.

California Rep Tom Lantos, who chairs the committee, urged Rice to put more pressure on Egypt to curb the flow of arms across their border into Hamas-run Gaza.

Rice said she had pressed this issue during her meetings in Cairo last week with President Hosni Mubarak.

''I did say that I thought they had not made enough progress. There needed to be further efforts. The situation is simply not acceptable, particularly in the context of trying to support moderate forces in the West Asia and moderate forces in the Palestinian territories,'' said Rice.

Rice said the United States also planned soon to send a senior US delegation to help the Egyptians, Israelis and the Palestinians deal with the smuggling.

Pressed by Lantos whether it was plausible that Egypt's powerful military had been incapable of curbing the smuggling, she replied: ''That's one reason that we think the senior delegation is a good idea.'' Reuters AK VP0107

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