Rice in new Mideast visit to prepare for conference

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TEL AVIV, Oct 14 (Reuters) US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice began a West Asia visit today by voicing doubts Israel and the Palestinians could agree during her 4-day trip on parameters for a conference on Palestinian statehood.

Israeli and Palestinian negotiating teams have begun meeting to hammer out a joint document addressing ''core issues'' for the US-sponsored international meeting expected to be held late next month in Annapolis, Maryland.

''I don't expect ... that there will be any particular outcome in the sense of breakthroughs on the document,'' Rice told reporters as she flew to Tel Aviv from Moscow.

''I would just warn in advance not to expect that, because this is really a work in progress,'' Rice said.

Israel has sought, at this stage, to address in general terms the most divisive aspects of the West Asia conflict -- borders, the future of the holy city of Jerusalem, and the fate of millions of Palestinian refugees and their descendants.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who lost control of the Gaza Strip to Hamas Islamists in June, has been pressing for a document with a timetable for dealing with those issues and moving Palestinians closer to statehood.

Rice is to meet Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in Jerusalem and travel to the occupied West Bank to see Abbas during her visit, which will include a side trip to Egypt and a visit to London to meet Jordan's King Abdullah there.

She also planned to meet with the ultraorthdox Shas party, a key partner in Olmert's governing coalition, where he faces right-wing opposition to any wide-ranging peace moves with the Palestinians.

A Shas cabinet minister yesterday questioned publicly whether the time is ripe for peace talks with the Palestinians and called on Olmert to limit discussions at the conference to economic matters.

SERIOUS NEGOTIATIONS During her previous visit last month, Rice urged Israelis and Palestinians to draft a document laying the basis for serious negotiations at the conference, which Washington hopes will attract wide Arab participation.

Ahmed Qurie, the Palestinian chief negotiator, told reporters yesterday the document should ''include the principles of a settlement in a clear manner''.

He said the Palestinians have put Washington on notice that ''the failure of the November conference will have bad consequences not only for the Palestinians and the Israelis but for the region as a whole''.

Western officials have told Reuters Olmert has privately signalled a willingness to consider handing over ''90-something'' percent of the West Bank and all of the Gaza Strip, with additional land swaps, as part of a final peace deal.

That may put the two sides within a few percentage points of consensus on the territory issue ahead of the Annapolis meeting.

But Israeli, Palestinian and Western officials said last week real progress would depend on narrowing differences over the fate of Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees.

Palestinians want East Jerusalem, annexed by Israel after its capture in the 1967 West Asia war, as the capital of the state they hope to establish in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Israel considers all of Jerusalem its capital, a claim not recognised internationally.

Reuters PD GC1506

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