Rice promises 'substantive' Middle East conference

United States Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice vowed on Monday that a US-sponsored Israeli-Palestinian conference would be serious and substantive, confirming it will take place in Annapolis, Maryland.

“This is going to be a serious and substantive conference that will advance the cause of the establishment of a Palestinian state. We frankly have better things to do than invite people to Annapolis for a photo op,” she said.

Although the US-sponsored conference had been expected to be held in Annapolis, Rice’s comments following talks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank were the first official confirmation of the venue.

The date and participants are yet to be announced.

Addressing a joint news conference in the West Bank city of Ramallah with Abbas, Rice repeated what US President George Bush had said in an interview to pan-Arab satellite channel al-Arabiya last week.

“The president has decided to make this one of the highest priorities of his administration and of his time in office, which means he is absolutely serious about moving this issue forward and moving it as rapidly as possible to conclusion.”

Rice held four hours of talks with Abbas in the occupied West Bank after meeting Israeli leaders on Sunday on her seventh trip to the region this year aimed at breaking almost seven years of deadlock in the peace process.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Abbas have met four times in two months to prepare for the meeting, and newly created negotiating teams are trying to hammer out a joint document ahead of the conference.

Nevertheless, there is widespread disagreement over what a joint document serving as a basis for those talks would say.

“They are not going to try to solve everything in this November document, but it does need to be a serious and substantive and concrete document that demonstrates that there is a way forward,” Rice stressed.

The Palestinians want a detailed agreement and time frame for implementing solutions to the thorniest issues in the conflict, while the Israelis want a vaguer document with core issues left until after the conference.

“This is the most serious effort to end this conflict in many, many years. I know there is hard work ahead, I know there are compromises that will have to be made,” the top US diplomat said.

“Let’s remember that the November document is not the final status agreement in itself; it is a document that is meant to demonstrate that there is a basis for negotiations on the establishment of a Palestinian state,” she added.

Rice said she will be encouraging both sides to implement the first-phase obligations of the road map, which include a halt to “terror and violence” and a freeze on Israeli settlement activity.

“They are spelt out for all parties.
They are in themselves a kind of reliable guide about how one might get to the establishment of a Palestinian state,” she said. “We need at this particular point in time to be certain to avoid any steps that would undermine confidence because the building of confidence is something that takes time.”

Recent Israeli orders to impound Arab land near Jerusalem have also muddied the waters, and Rice said on Sunday that she would be telling Israel during her meetings that the move erodes confidence.—Sapa-AFP

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