JERUSALEM, (AP) – U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice played down expectations for breakthroughs as she opened a critical round of Mideast shuttle diplomacy Sunday and warned Israel against moves that might erode confidence in the process.
As she flew into the region from Russia, Rice said she hoped to help narrow gaps between the Israelis and Palestinians, who are trying to forge an outline of an eventual peace deal in a joint statement to be presented at a U.S.-hosted international conference next month.
But even before her meetings began, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert antagonized the Palestinians by hinting that such an outline wasn’t necessary for the conference to go ahead. The Palestinians said that without such a document, they would skip the meeting altogether.
The U.S. has been trying to revive peace efforts since the Islamic militant group Hamas seized control of the Gaza Strip in June. While the Gaza takeover has left Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas controlling just the West Bank, his expulsion of Hamas from government has, in U.S. eyes, freed the moderate leader to pursue a peace deal that would create a Palestinian state.
Rice said she did not believe her visit would produce the joint Israel-Palestinian statement or bring it to a point where invitations for the conference, expected to held in Annapolis, Md., in late November, could be issued.
“I don’t expect out of these meetings that there will be any particular outcome in the sense of breakthroughs on the document,” she told reporters aboard her plane.
At the same time, she said she would urge Israel in particular not to do anything that could threaten the meeting, following its renewal of a road plan that Palestinians fear is intended to tighten Israeli control over strategic West Bank areas near Jerusalem.
Rice said Israeli clarifications that the project was not imminent and meant to ease Palestinian movement did little to ease concerns.
“We have to be very careful as we are trying to move toward the establishment of a Palestinian state of actions and statements that erode confidence in the parties’ commitment to a two-state solution,” she said.
“Even if the intentions are good and even if the actual events on the ground are intended to produce a certain kind of outcome, this is a very delicate time,” Rice said. “It’s just a time to be extremely careful.”
Rice said she would shuttle between Israel and the West Bank over the next three days to “help them narrow differences that they may have about what the nature of this document has to be.”
Speaking to his Cabinet Sunday, Olmert suggested a major difference existed when he hinted Israel did not see a peace deal outline as a crucial element of the meeting.
The goal, Olmert said, “is to arrive at a joint statement during the international conference, even though the existence of such a statement was never a condition for holding this conference,” he said.
Palestinian Foreign Minister Riad Malki said the Palestinians would not allow Olmert to use the conference as a public relations stunt.
“Without a document to resolve this conflict, we can’t go to the conference next month,” he said.
“Olmert is looking for a public relations conference and one that will allow normalization with Arab countries,” he said. “We will not help him in this.”
To build Arab support for the conference, Rice will also make a stop in Egypt on Tuesday and cap her trip in London on Thursday to see King Abdullah of Jordan who will be in the British capital. A planned stop in Amman, Jordan, was canceled because the monarch would not be there.
A key measure of the success of the conference will be how far the sides move beforehand toward resolving key areas of dispute, like final borders, sovereignty over disputed Jerusalem and a solution for Palestinian refugees.
So far, the two sides are at odds over how detailed that peace deal framework should be, and both say no written agreement has been forged on any of these issues.
Israel is pressing for a vaguely worded document that would give it more room to maneuver. The Palestinians, by contrast, want a detailed preliminary agreement with a timetable for creating a Palestinian state.
Rice said she would be looking for “clarity on where the parties see themselves in the negotiations on their bilateral statement” that she said should at least touch on the key “final status” issues.
“I do think it’s important that they address the core issues in some fashion,” she said. “I also think it’s important that the document be substantive enough that it points that there is a way forward toward the establishment of a Palestinian state.”
Rice, on her third visit to the region since the Hamas takeover in Gaza, would not rule out presenting suggestions for the two sides to consider but refused to say what those might be.
In recent days, Palestinian officials have said an agreement is nearer than ever, and that swapping Israeli territory for West Bank land could solve the contentious issue of Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
Olmert has said the time has come to stop letting excuses get in the way of peacemaking, and a top ally has been publicly discussing a subject that was long taboo — sharing sovereignty in Jerusalem.
Still, the road project and the two sides’ disagreements on the refugee issue are clouding prospects for success.