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Rice says 'encouraged' by talks ahead of peace conference
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US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who had just a 4-day visit to the Middle East, said Thursday she was encouraged by what she had heard from Israeli and Palestinian officials during her shuttle diplomacy in the region.


Though so, Rice also acknowledged tensions and gaps existing between the two sides ahead of a US-hosted conference in late November or December at Annapolis, Maryland.     




"I think they are very serious," Rice was quoted by the Jerusalem Post as saying on Thursday before flying to London for talks with Jordan's King Abdullah II.


"The teams are serious. The people are serious. The issues are serious. So I am not surprised that there are tensions. I am not surprised that there are some ups and downs," she said.


"That is the character of this kind of endeavor, but I was encouraged by what I heard," she added.


On Wednesday, Rice had expressed her optimism during a joint press conference with Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, saying there was a basis for moving forward in the process aimed at achieving a Palestinian state living in peace alongside with Israel.


Wrapping up her four days of shuttle diplomacy, Rice stressed that the current talks between Israel and the Palestinians are the most serious that the two sides have ever had towards the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in about seven years.


Also on Wednesday, US President George W. Bush said in Washington that it was important for Rice to help the Israelis and the Palestinians make progress which would lead into the upcoming conference.


Following Rice's visit, US National security adviser Stephen Hadley will be sent to Middle East next week to begin a new round of shuttle diplomacy. Rice herself will also return to the region for further discussions with all parties involved in early November, according to US officials.   




Nevertheless, Israel and the Palestinians have vastly different expectations for the peace conference, where they are to present a joint document that would start negotiations to create a Palestinian state.


Livni said on Wednesday that the goal of current talks with the Palestinians is to reach as wide as possible an understanding in the time available ahead of the upcoming conference.


Livni warned against excessive expectations of the talks, saying it could lead to frustration and violence.


However, Abbas accused Israel of hindering the endeavor to reach a document with substance, saying the Palestinians won't go to the peace conference at any price.


The Palestinians are demanding a comprehensive agreement with Israel on all the core issues before the conference, as well as an agreement on a timetable for implementing the agreement within a fixed period of time. But the Israeli government are pushing for a much more broad-brush agreement.     


Core issues


A joint declaration with the Palestinians at the international peace conference might address the core issues of Jerusalem, refugees and permanent borders, an Israeli official was quoted by local popular Ha'aretz as saying on Thursday.


The senior source said Rice had reached an agreement with the Palestinians, stating that the declaration "will address all core issues and point to certain avenues to be pursued through negotiation."


The anonymous official added, however, that the declaration will not offer solutions to any of the aforementioned core issues.


Rice reportedly told the Palestinians that Israel will not commit to a timetable for negotiations. Palestinians sources also said that Israel will not have the Palestinian refugees' right of return mentioned in the document.


The Israeli and Palestinian negotiation teams will meet again on Thursday or Friday to resume talks on the joint declaration.


(Xinhua News Agency October 19, 2007)

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