Rice to push West Asian leaders on joint document

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JERUSALEM, Nov 3 (Reuters) US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is due in Jerusalem again today for more talks aimed at bridging differences between Palestinian and Israeli leaders ahead of a conference on Palestinian statehood.

On her third visit to the region in six weeks, Rice hopes to push both sides to agree on a joint document on statehood to be presented at the meeting in Annapolis, Maryland, officials said.

''It's between finding the proper language without causing either one of them political problems domestically,'' said a senior US official who was travelling with Rice in Turkey today before her departure for Jerusalem later in the day.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who will meet Rice tomorrow, faces stiff opposition within his own coalition to any concessions on borders or a division of Jerusalem as long as Israelis feel threatened by Palestinian militants.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, whom Rice will meet in the West Bank on Monday, is under pressure to show his people he can deliver an end to Israeli occupation and can also withstand a challenge to his authority from Hamas Islamists, hostile to Israel, who seized control of the Gaza Strip five months ago.

''This is a very painstaking process which we need to approach with the right discretion,'' the senior US official said. ''But there is a growing urgency about this.'' The joint document is intended to lay down the principles by which a Palestinian state can be established.

Both sides say they would be prepared to start negotiating final deals on the most sensitive ''core issues'' after the talks and both have said that they want a deal before US President George W Bush steps down in a little over a year.

But while Palestinian officials want a firm deadline, Israeli leaders have resisted that, saying any accord will be conditional on Abbas ensuring there is no threat to Israel -- a condition few Israelis believe he can fulfil. Israelis also argue that a failure to meet any deadline could spark violence.

DATE UNCERTAIN Such is the uncertainty that the date of the conference is still undecided. US officials have said they hope to host the meeting over two days in the week starting November 26.

Several Palestinian officials who took part in talks today involving Abbas and a senior US State Department official, David Welch, said they were sceptical that agreement on a joint document could be reached in time for that date.

Abbas gave Welch a number of proposals for inclusion in the document, the Palestinian officials told Reuters.

In recent weeks, both sides have stressed their commitment to implementing the first phase of the long-dormant ''road map'' accords of 2003, which commit Palestinian leaders to suppressing militants and Israel to reining in Jewish settlement.

''The first phase of the road map ought to have been acted on yesterday,'' said the senior US official with Rice.

Palestinian officials say they are already trying to implement their commitments on security, despite what they say are difficulties in asserting their authority under occupation.

Yesterday, a new, 300-strong security force from the Palestinian Authority arrived to deploy in Nablus, one of the biggest cities in the West Bank, where Israeli occupying troops have clashed regularly with militant groups.

Reuters SKB RN1906

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