Rice seeks West Asia peace deal while Bush in office

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RAMALLAH, West Bank, Nov 5 (Reuters) US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice joined Israeli and Palestinian leaders today in voicing hope they could reach a peace agreement before President George W. Bush leaves office in January 2009.

But wrapping up two days of talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders, she again gave no date for a US-led conference which all parties have said would serve as a launching pad for statehood negotiations.

Rice said only that the meeting, in Annapolis, Maryland, would take place ''before the end of the year''.

She offered no details on how Israel and the Palestinians might settle their deep divisions over core issues they have pledged to tackle after the conference: borders and the future of Jerusalem and millions of Palestinian refugees.

Echoing recent comments by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Rice told a news conference she hoped for negotiations after the Annapolis meeting that ''could achieve their goals within the time remaining to the Bush administration''.

Bush, who proposed the gathering, is searching for a better legacy than the invasion of Iraq and its chaotic aftermath.

Setting precise timelines for Israeli-Palestinian peace moves, a Palestinian demand that Israel opposes, has been a key point of contention as both sides try to put together a joint document to be presented at the gathering.

''What is ahead of us is very difficult work,'' Rice told a news conference, with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas at her side.

CAUTION Abbas sounded a note of caution, saying at the news conference: ''Negotiations are difficult and will remain difficult until the last minute but there are encouraging things taking place.'' But he said the Annapolis parley presented a ''genuine opportunity'' for peace.

''The three parties today -- the American and the Israeli and the Palestinian sides -- are all insisting we reach a solution before the end of Mr. Bush's term in office,'' Abbas said.

Abbas, an aide said, had proposed to Rice that statehood negotiations be completed no later than six months after the end of the conference, pencilled in for the last week of November though it could slip to December.

In an indication of difficulties ahead, Israel has also put the Palestinians on notice it would not implement an agreement until its security concerns, spelled out in a US-backed peace ''road map'' formulated in 2003, were met.

The Palestinians have called on Israel to meet its commitments under that blueprint and halt settlement expansion and uproot outposts established in the occupied West Bank without Israeli government permission.

Although Washington has yet to issue invitations to the conference, Rice said Arab states were giving ''very clear signs that they want that process to succeed''. She said the creation of a Palestinian state was ''everyone's goal''.

Abbas, whose Fatah faction lost control of the Gaza Strip to Hamas Islamists in June, said at the news conference he was seeking the release of more Palestinian prisoners held by Israel.

An Israeli government official said Israel was weighing the matter. Israel freed 250 prisoners in July and another 86 in October.


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