Rice optimistic of document ahead of Mideast meeting

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SHANNON, Ireland, Sep 20 (Reuters) US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said today she was optimistic Palestinians and Israelis would agree to a joint document on the tough issues that divide them before US-led peace talks.

The document is expected to form the basis for negotiations that the United States would like to see launched at an international conference.

But after a 36-hour diplomatic push, including two sets of talks with Israel's Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and a meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank, Rice said she did not think the document would include a timetable and there was no sign she had managed to bridge differences.

However, she said Olmert and Abbas had come a ''very, very long way'' since she hosted a frosty meeting with them in February in Jerusalem and she believed a relationship of trust was emerging from their bilateral meetings since then.

''There is clearly a kind of focus and commitment on the part of both of the leaders as well as the people who are working most closely with them to try and get this document done,'' Rice told reporters flying home with her, before a refuelling stop at Shannon airport in Ireland.

The drawing up of a document is a contentious issue for the conference, whose goals are still vague and participants, venue and timing not yet announced. It is expected to take place mid-November in the Washington area.

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''.

Abbas told a news conference he wanted to reach with Olmert ''an agreement with a clear timeframe'' for implementation.

''A timeline isn't wise at this point, but we will see if one is helpful later,'' Rice said, adding: ''They are going to address the core issues that relate to the establishment of a Palestinian state.'' ARAB SUSPICION It was Rice's sixth visit to the region this year, aimed at giving momentum to preparations for the conference and impressing upon suspicious Arab allies such as Saudi Arabia her commitment to the Israeli-Palestinian issue.

Saudi Arabia has been lukewarm to the Middle East conference, saying it will only attend if substantive issues are discussed. Also unclear is whether states regarded as hostile, notably Syria, would be invited.

''We don't need a photo opportunity. We need a meeting that will advance the cause of a Palestinian state,'' said Rice.

With expectations raised for the conference, experts warn that if it fails, it could serve only to damage peace efforts and further destabilise the region.

''Attempted peacemaking, if ill-conceived, can be as risky and destabilising as war-making,'' said Daniel Levy, a former negotiator for the Israelis who is now with the New America foundation, a think-tank in Washington.

Rice's trip hit complications the moment she arrived in Jerusalem, which coincided with an Israeli cabinet decision to declare Hamas-run Gaza Strip an ''enemy entity'' in the wake of frequent cross-border rocket attacks.

There is some pessimism over how much the United States can push along the peace process while the Palestinian Territories are divided between Hamas-led Gaza and the West Bank controlled by Abbas.


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