Rice takes diplomatic push to West Bank

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Ramallah, Nov 5: US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice took her diplomatic mission to the occupied West Bank today for talks with Palestinian leaders seeking deadlines for future statehood negotiations with Israel.

Setting a timeframe for a peace deal, a Palestinian demand that Israel opposes and Washington has not embraced, is a key point of contention holding up the announcement of a final date for a US-led West Asia conference.

After a day of talks between Rice and Israeli leaders yesterday, it was clear broad differences remained with the Palestinians on crafting a document to form the basis of discussions at the gathering planned for Annapolis, Maryland.

Rice and Israeli officials have sought to lower expectations over the paper. They told reporters it was more important what happened after the Annapolis meeting, when tough negotiations on issues such as borders and the future of Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees are expected to begin.

''There is more talk about the day-after now than I have heard in any of my other trips here,'' said Rice, who is on a two-day visit.

Israeli leaders told Rice, who began her talks in the West Bank with chief Palestinian negotiator Ahmed Qurie, they could not agree on any deal unless Israel's security was assured.

She was likely to push that point in her meetings with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad in the West Bank city of Ramallah.

Rice will also seek to reassure Abbas that Israel will meet its own commitments under the 2003 US ''road map'', that outlines reciprocal steps leading to statehood, including a halt to expansion of Jewish settlements.

OBLIGATIONS ''Both parties understand that they both have obligations under phase one of the roadmap and they full well know what they are,'' Rice, on her eighth trip to the region this year and the third in the past six weeks, told reporters travelling with her.

The Bush administration is seeking to bolster Abbas militarily against rival Hamas, which seized control of the Gaza Strip in mid-June.

Last month the White House asked Congress for at least 410 million dollarsin additional funding in 2008 to boost Abbas through economic development and the strengthening of his security forces.

Israel is also considering a request by Palestinian leaders to release more Palestinians held in its jails, said an official in Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's office. Israel freed 250 prisoners in July and another 86 in October.

The release of prisoners is highly emotive for Palestinians, who regard their nearly 11,000 brethren held in Israeli jails as fighters against occupation. Many Israelis fear such amnesties encourage Palestinian militants to strike again.


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