Rice not ready to set Mideast conference date

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JERUSALEM, Nov 4 (Reuters) US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said today she was not yet ready to set a date for a conference on Palestinian statehood as Israel cited problems in the talks and cast doubt on implementing any deal.

Rice, on her third visit in six weeks to the region, is trying to bridge gaps between both sides ahead of a US-sponsored conference expected in the last week of November in Annapolis, Maryland.

Israeli and Palestinian negotiators are at odds over a timeline for talks, and Israeli leaders today told Rice any deal Washington hoped to broker for a Palestinian state would not be implemented until Israel's security was assured.

In an indication she had not yet managed to close differences enough between the Palestinians and the Israelis ahead of the planned conference, Rice told reporters traveling with her: ''It's not quite ripe yet for invitations.'' ''I don't have a feeling that when we do deliver invitations we will find many people who will say 'we are sorry we are busy','' Rice said.

Speaking after a day of talks with Israeli leaders, Rice said both sides were working through their differences and that the negotiating atmosphere was good.

''People are starting to address really difficult issues that they have not addressed in a long time and that means that they are negotiating,'' she said, declining to give any details.

''Of course when you negotiate you run into differences,'' she added.

Israel and the Palestinians are still at odds over a joint document for the conference, which would serve as a launching pad for negotiations on core issues such as borders and the fate of Jerusalem and millions of Palestinian refugees.

Israel has insisted that any future agreement be put into effect only after the Palestinians have met their obligations under a US-backed peace 'road map' charting reciprocal steps toward statehood.

The 2003 blueprint requires Palestinians to crack down on militants and for Israel to halt the expansion of Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank and remove dozens of outposts set up without Israeli government permission.

''They (the Palestinians) need to understand that the implementation of future understandings would be implemented only according to the phases of the road map -- the meaning is security for Israel first and then the establishment of a Palestinian state,'' Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni told reporters, Rice at her side.

Rice said later both sides knew their obligations under the road map, including that Israel had to halt settlement activity.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who will see Rice tomorrow, said in a speech in the West Bank city of Ramallah that Palestinians had abided by 90 percent of the road map requirements and now ''Israel must do its part''.

Abbas's Fatah faction holds sway only in the West Bank after losing control of the Gaza Strip to Hamas Islamists in fighting in June.

COMPLICATIONS Livni, Israel's chief negotiator for the conference, said the Jewish state was prepared to move forward in discussions with the Palestinians, although the situation was ''complicated ... more than ever.'' Rice has told reporters it was unlikely there would be agreement on a document during her two-day trip, which included a working lunch with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

Commenting on Rice's talks with Olmert, an Israeli government official said they spoke about preparations for the conference and ''adhering to the principles of the road map as a basis for progress between Israel and the Palestinians''.

Israel and the Palestinians are also at loggerheads over Abbas's call for a timeline to wrap up so-called ''final-status'' negotiations for creating a Palestinian state.

Olmert opposes a timeframe, cautioning that a failure to meet deadlines could deepen frustrations and touch off violence.

But he has said it is his goal to reach an accord before U.S.

President George W Bush ends his second term in January 2009.

Rice also met Middle East envoy Tony Blair, who told CNN afterwards there was ''momentum'' in the peace process.

''The next couple of months are going to be absolutely crucial ...

to reinvigorate the credibility of the process, get it back on track and give people who are moderate people, who want to see two states -- Israel confident of its security, a viable Palestinian state up and running and in existence -- and put this long-running dispute to rest,'' Blair said.

REUTERS PBB AS0301

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