RAMALLAH, West Bank (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice joined Israeli and Palestinian leaders on Monday in voicing hope they could reach a peace agreement before President George W. Bush leaves office in January 2009.
But wrapping up two days of talks in the region, she again gave no date for a U.S.-led conference which all parties have said would serve as a launching pad for statehood negotiations.
Rice said only that the meeting, in Annapolis, Maryland, would take place “before the end of the year”.
A senior official traveling with Rice said the conference would most likely be held in the last week of November, and apart from the main players, participating countries would be represented at ministerial level.
“We are on track for somewhere before the end of this month, I hope. I don’t see any reason to deviate from that schedule, but you never say never in the Middle East,” the official said.
Rice offered no details on how Israel and the Palestinians might settle their deep divisions over core issues they have pledged to tackle after the conference: borders and the future of Jerusalem and millions of Palestinian refugees.
Setting precise timelines for Israeli-Palestinian peace moves, a Palestinian demand that Israel opposes, has also been a key point of contention while both sides try to put together a joint document to be presented at the gathering.
Echoing recent comments by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Rice told a news conference she hoped for negotiations after the Annapolis meeting that “could achieve their goals within the time remaining to the Bush administration”.
Bush, who proposed the gathering, is searching for a better legacy than the invasion of Iraq and its chaotic aftermath.
“What is ahead of us is very difficult work,” Rice said, with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas at her side after they held talks in the West Bank city of Ramallah.
Saeb Erekat, a senior Palestinian negotiator, said Rice told Abbas she does not want “open-ended negotiations” and that “Bush believes that a historic Palestinian-Israeli agreement can be reached during his tenure”.
Abbas sounded a note of caution, saying at the news conference: “Negotiations are difficult and will remain difficult until the last minute but there are encouraging things taking place.”
He said the Annapolis parley presented a “genuine opportunity” for peace and that Israeli and Palestinian teams negotiating the joint document were making progress.
“The three parties today — the American and the Israeli and the Palestinian sides — are all insisting we reach a solution before the end of Mr. Bush’s term in office,” Abbas said.
Abbas, an aide said, had proposed to Rice that statehood negotiations be completed no later than six months after the end of the conference, penciled in for the last week of November though it could slip to December.
In an indication of difficulties ahead, Israel has also put the Palestinians on notice it would not implement an agreement until its security concerns, spelled out in a U.S.-backed peace “road map” formulated in 2003, were met.
The Palestinians have called on Israel to meet its commitments under that blueprint and halt settlement expansion and uproot outposts established in the occupied West Bank without Israeli government permission.
Five Palestinians were wounded on Monday when Abbas’s security forces clashed with gunmen for the first time since their deployment in the city of Nablus last week as part of a Western-backed push to bolster West Bank security.
Abbas, whose Fatah faction lost control of the Gaza Strip to Hamas Islamists in June, said at the news conference he was seeking Israel’s release of more Palestinian prisoners.
Israeli Vice Premier Haim Ramon said on Israeli television that a “significant release” of prisoners before the Annapolis conference “would be the right thing to do”, but he gave no numbers. Israel freed 250 prisoners in July and 86 in October.