SHANNON, Ireland (AFP)- US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice headed back to the United States late Monday stoked by upbeat forecasts in the Middle East of a breakthrough during peace talks outside Washington.
“All the parties agree and are determined to reach an agreement before the end of Bush’s term in office and we are determined that this serves as our deadline and we are working towards that,” Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas told reporters earlier in the day, following discussions with Rice in the occupied West Bank.
At the joint press conference, Rice said she hoped a planned peace conference in Annapolis, Maryland could be the “launching pad” for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations leading the way to a Palestinian state.
“Negotiations that I sincerely hope, as (Israeli) Prime Minister (Ehud) Olmert said last night, that could achieve their goals in the time remaining in the Bush administration,” she said.
Rice met Palestinian leaders a day after talks in Israel on her eighth visit to the region this year to advance efforts for reviving full peace negotiations through an upcoming international meeting.
While no date has been set, US officials suggest it may take place by November’s end.
“We are on track for somewhere toward the end of this month, I hope. I don’t see any reason to deviate from that schedule,” a senior State Department official said.
On Sunday, Olmert said he would rule nothing out in the discussions.
“All the basic questions, all the substantive problems, all the historic questions which are pertinent to the disagreement between us and the Palestinians are on the agenda,” he said, following his own meeting with Rice.
“We will avoid none of them, we will not run away from discussing any of them,” the Israeli leader added.
Both Israeli and Palestinian leaders said a peace deal could conceivably be reached before US President George W. Bush leaves office, in early 2009. But Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni stressed that Israeli security must come before the creation of a Palestinian state.
Washington expects the Annapolis talks will take place at the ministerial level or higher.
“However, if the Palestinians and the Israelis progress to the point that I expect them to get to, I believe they will be represented at the prime minister and president level,” the State Department official said.
“I fully expect this to be a very painstaking, even at times difficult, discussion between them.”
Israel and the Palestinians have said they will hold bilateral talks after Annapolis on a permanent solution to the Middle East conflict, seven years after US-sponsored talks last broke down at Camp David.
Palestinian presidency spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeina said a joint document, which has been subject to intense negotiations for weeks to serve as a basis for the Annapolis conference, was in the process of being drafted.
It would incorporate the “principles” of the stalled roadmap peace plan and the Arab peace initiative, which calls for normalisation of ties with Israel in exchange for a full withdrawal from Arab land, he said.
Bilateral negotiations after Annapolis would have a deadline, but that is yet to be fixed, Abu Rudeina said.
“President Abbas suggested six months. Rice and Olmert want it to be the end of the Bush mandate, in a year,” he said.
Israel and the Palestinians have long divided over the joint statement, which is supposed to outline a solution to their decades-old conflict.
The Palestinians want it to tackle the most intractable problems — namely borders, refugees and the status of Jerusalem — with a clear timetable.
Israel favours a looser statement based on the roadmap, a Western-drafted peace plan that has made next to no progress since its adoption in June 2003.
Before her arrival on Saturday, Rice had lowered expectations for her visit, saying she did not expect to reach an agreement this time on the document.
Palestinian officials said she was expected back in the region for a ninth visit in mid-November as part of preparations for the US peace meeting.