Friday, September 21, 2007

Rice says international peace conference must be 'substantive'

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Thursday an upcoming US-sponsored Middle East conference must be "substantive," and that Israel and the Palestinians must draft a document before the meeting that lays "foundations for serious negotiations." The Palestinians want the conference, tentatively set for November, to yield an outline for a peace deal, complete with timetable, while Israel wants a more vague declaration of intent. Key Arab states, such as Saudi Arabia, have said they would only attend if concrete results were achieved.
Palestinian leaders pressed Rice about the goal of the conference.
The gathering "has to be substantive and advance the cause of a Palestinian state," Rice told a joint news conference with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Participants must not "simply meet for the sake of meeting," she said.
Before the meeting, Abbas aides said he would urge Rice to invite all relevant Arab states to the conference, including Syria and Lebanon, and not to set a date for the gathering unless a successful outcome is assured.
The US has not set a date or agenda for the conference, and it has not announced who it will invite.
Abbas told the news conference that he believes some Arab countries are hesitant to confirm attendance because the objectives are not clear.
"I think many issues need to be clarified and I think it's the duty of the hosts of the conference," he said, referring to the US "When things are clarified, I think the Arab countries, and I'm not... speaking on their behalf, will attend that conference," he said.
Abbas said he expects the conference to launch serious negotiations with Israel.
"We believe the time is right for the establishment of an independent Palestinian state, with east Jerusalem as its capital, and for living side by side in peace and security with the state of Israel," Abbas said.
Abbas and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert have held periodic talks in recent months, and agreed to set up negotiating teams that would try to reach the general outline of a peace deal ahead of the conference.
Abbas said he informed Rice of the composition of the Palestinian negotiating team. He didn't announce the names publicly, but his aides said it will be headed by former Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia, who led interim peace talks with Israel in the 1990s.
The Hamas government in Gaza, meanwhile, said Thursday it wouldn't be bound by any possible agreements that might be reached at the upcoming conference.
"Any agreement that might result from the US-designed peace conference this fall will not be binding for the Palestinian people," Hamas government spokesman Taher Nunu told the Al Quds station in Gaza.
Rice has not said if the conference would address the hardest issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, including the borders of a Palestinian state, a solution for Palestinian refugees and the status of disputed Jerusalem.
In preparatory talks with Israel, the Palestinians have been pushing for a detailed document addressing these core issues ahead of the conference. Israel has said it prefers a more vague declaration, saying it is premature to discuss the thorniest issues at the core of the Middle East conflict.
Rice said that whatever the final nature of the document, it must lay "foundations for serious negotiations."
Abbas, meanwhile, said he is to meet next week with US President George W. Bush during the UN General Assembly in New York. The two leaders last met a year ago, also during the General Assembly.
Thursday's meetings were overshadowed by Israel's decision Wednesday to designate Hamas-ruled Gaza as "hostile territory," accompanied by a threat to cut back vital supplies of fuel and electricity.
Abbas has denounced the decision as "oppressive" and said it would increase the suffering of Gaza's residents. However, Abbas didn't call off peace efforts with Israel in response to the move. And Olmert's office said the decision still required a legal review, suggesting it could be a means to pressure Gaza terrorists to halt rocket fire.
Asked to comment on the decision Wednesday, Rice said, "We will not abandon the innocent Palestinians in Gaza, and indeed will make every effort to deal with their humanitarian needs."
But she did not criticize the Israeli move, saying, "Hamas is a hostile entity to the United States as well."
Rice is due to speak with Olmert again after her meeting with Abbas.

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