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Israeli minister to Rice: Jerusalem not on table
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Israeli Deputy Prime Minister and Industry, Trade and Labor Minister Eli Yishai on Sunday told visiting US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that Jerusalem was "not on the negotiations table," local top-selling daily Yedioth Ahronoth reported on its website.


In a handout picture released by the US Embassy in Tel Aviv, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice smiles as arrives at Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion International Airport. Rice began her latest Middle East tour warning that she did not expect a major peace breakthrough ahead of a US-sponsored meeting next month.


Yishai's remarks came just ahead of a US-sponsored international peace conference slated for next month, which the Palestinian side expects will deal with those thorniest issues regarding the lasting Israeli-Palestinian conflict, including control over Jerusalem.


"We have a Palestinian Authority with two heads. It is impossible to sign an agreement with only 60 percent of the Palestinian people. We need a real reinforcement, rather than a virtual one. Only an economic conference can bolster Abu Mazen (Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas)," said Yishai.


Yishai was referring to the political division of the Palestinians. Since mid-June when Hamas seized control of the Gaza Strip, the geographically-divided Palestinian territories has been politically split into two parts -- with Hamas controlling Gaza and Abbas' Fatah movement holding the West Bank.


"I am a man of peace and I long for peace," Yishai claimed, adding that Israel has been waiting for real negotiations for a very long time and it can wait longer.


Control over the holy city of Jerusalem has been a very sensitive and thorny issue for the decades-long conflict. The city is of special importance to both the Arabs and the Israeli as it comprises major religious sites.


The Palestinians, with support from Arab states, are seeking to set up a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital. But the Jewish state says the city is the eternal capital of Israel.


In response to Yishai's remarks, Rice argued that only discussions on core issues could bolster the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.


"I am convinced that the Palestinians need an independent country. The Annapolis peace conference will discuss the core issues, but the negotiations will be held in a direct manner." Rice responded.


Earlier in the day, Rice also held talks with Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak.


Barak told Rice that Israel would dismantle one permanent roadblock on the road connecting Bethlehem and Hebron in the West Bank as a gesture of goodwill toward the Palestinians.


Barak added that the Palestinian Authority has yet completed the daily deployment of 500 Palestinian police officers in the West Bank city of Nablus during daytime hours, a move which Rice approved during her last visit to the region in mid-September.


On September 23, Israel authorized the deployment of 500 Palestinian police reinforcements to the restive town Nablus, where Israel recently carried out a major military incursion.


Barak reiterated that Israel's freedom to implement security measures within the West Bank is a basic principle which must be upheld in the future.


Rice arrived in Israel on Sunday morning, as part of her four-day visit in the Middle East, in a bid to prepare the ground for the US-proposed Middle East peace conference to be held next month in Annapolis, Maryland.


She downplayed the likelihood of an immediate breakthrough on a document that would outline details of a future peace deal between the two sides.


"I don't expect ... that there will be any particular outcome in the sense of breakthroughs on the document," she was quoted local popular daily Ha'aretz as saying to reporters during her flight to Tel Aviv from Moscow.


"I would just warn in advance not to expect that, because this is really a work in progress." she added.


On July 16, US President George W. Bush proposed to hold an international peace conference this fall, which would include Israel, the Palestinians, and some neighboring Arab states, to help resume the stalled Middle East peace talks.


(Xinhua News Agency October 15, 2007)

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