JERUSALEM (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice began a Middle East visit on Sunday by playing down the chances of major progress on Israeli-Palestinian peace during her four days of talks with officials from both sides.
Rice came to the region to prepare for an international meeting the United States plans to host this year that it hopes will lead to formal peace negotiations and, eventually, the creation of a Palestinian state.
Israeli and Palestinian negotiating teams have been formed to draft a joint document addressing “core issues” for the gathering, expected to be held late next month in Annapolis, Maryland.
“I don’t expect ... that there will be any particular outcome in the sense of breakthroughs on the document,” Rice told reporters as she flew to Tel Aviv. “This is really a work in progress.”
Rice held separate, roughly two-hour meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Ehud Barak and then had dinner with Palestinian Prime Minister Salaam Fayyad to gauge each side’s views.
Statements from both sides suggested major gaps remained.
Olmert told Rice it was his “clear hope” a joint statement would be agreed in time for the conference but added “that’s not a condition for the meeting taking place,” his spokeswoman, Miri Eisin, said.
“These conversations are in their infancy,” a senior U.S. official told reporters, saying substantive talks between the negotiating teams were likely to begin this week, possibly on Monday evening.
“This is going to require a lot of hands-on American diplomacy,” the official, who spoke on condition that he not be named, said when asked if Rice was likely to return to the Middle East several times before the peace conference.
‘A VERY DELICATE TIME’
The negotiations have stirred opposition from Olmert’s right-wing coalition partners. One cabinet minister told Rice that major peace moves at the conference could threaten Olmert’s government.
Olmert has sought to address in general terms the most divisive aspects of the Middle East conflict -- borders of a Palestinian state, the future of the holy city of Jerusalem, and the fate of millions of Palestinian refugees.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has been pressing for a document with a timetable for dealing with those issues and moving Palestinians closer to statehood.
“The success of Rice’s efforts requires reaching a clear statement that will include the final-status issues, in addition to stopping the settlement projects that aim to isolate Jerusalem and divide the West Bank,” said Nabil Abu Rdainah, an Abbas aide.
Olmert told his cabinet that he expected the conference to be followed by “discussions on the possibility of founding a Palestinian state.”
But he also said that “setting a timetable for this process in advance would create more problems than it would solve.”
Rice plans to meet Abbas in the West Bank on Monday and to visit Egypt on Tuesday and to meet in London with Jordan’s King Abdullah on Thursday.
Olmert named Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, a political rival who has warned against moving too fast towards an agreement, as chief Israeli negotiator on the joint document.
Rice warned Israel against taking steps that could undermine confidence, alluding to Israel’s confirmation last week that it was building a new road near the West Bank settlement of Maaleh Adumim on the outskirts of Jerusalem.
The Israeli army said the road would help connect Palestinian communities. Palestinian officials accused Israel of creating “facts on the ground” before peace talks.
“We have to be very careful, as we are trying to move toward the establishment of a Palestinian state, (about) actions and statements that erode confidence,” Rice said. “This is a very delicate time.”
Additional reporting by Ali Sawafta in Ramallah and Jeffrey Heller and Adam Entous in Jerusalem