JERUSALEM – Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice opened an intense round of Mideast shuttle diplomacy Sunday, struggling to bring Israelis and Palestinians close enough to make a planned U.S.-hosted peace conference worthwhile.
The two sides are at bitter odds over an outline of a peace agreement that would be presented at next month’s conference, and Rice sought to lower expectations her mission would finalize preparations for the gathering.
Underscoring her less-than-optimistic assessment, Israeli and Palestinians traded shots about the other’s commitment to peace even as she arrived in the region. During her four-day visit, she will bounce between Israel and the West Bank, seeking a consensus.
Her hope is to close the gap as Israel and the Palestinian Authority try to forge an outline of an eventual peace deal and produce a joint statement for the conference. It is expected to be held in Annapolis, Md., in late November.
But after Rice’s first series of meetings, a senior State Department official hinted that the date could slide as the lead negotiators for the two sides will begin only this week to try to craft the document.
“This is going to take some time,” the official told reporters on condition of anonymity in order to describe the private conversations. “This is going to require a lot of hands-on American diplomacy. These are really tough issues.”
And on her flight from Moscow, where she held talks with Russian leaders, Rice said she did not believe her visit would clear the way for a statement or make enough progress so that conference invitations could go out.
Israel is pressing for a vaguely worded document that would give it more room to maneuver. The Palestinians want a detailed preliminary agreement with a timetable for creating a Palestinian state as well as specifics on borders, sovereignty over disputed Jerusalem and a solution for Palestinian refugees – the “final status” issues.