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Condoleezza Rice starts talks with Palestinians

Ramallah, Nov 5 (DPA) US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice began talks with Palestinians Monday, a day after meeting Israeli leaders in her latest round of shuttle diplomacy aimed at boosting difficult preparations for the Middle East conference she is due to host weeks from now.

Rice met in the West Bank city of Ramallah with acting Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, before parleys later in the day with the head of the Palestinian negotiating team, Ahmed Qureia, and President Mahmoud Abbas.

She met Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni in Jerusalem Sunday, after arriving late Saturday on her fourth visit to the region in as many months since US President George W. Bush announced the international meeting in mid-July.

Olmert earlier vehemently denied suspicions by some Palestinians that he was “foot-dragging” or attempting to circumvent dealing with the fundamental issues of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“All the basic questions, all the substantive problems, all the historic questions which are pertinent to the argument between us and the Palestinians are on the agenda,” he told a forum on US-Israeli strategic cooperation in Jerusalem late Sunday.

“We will not run from discussing any of them.”

“After Annapolis, we will enter into vigorous, ongoing and continuing negotiations,” he vowed, adding there was a chance for real accomplishments perhaps even before the end of President Bush’s term in office.

But Livni, who heads the Israeli negotiating team, earlier admitted that there were problems in the talks preparing the conference, due in Annapolis, Maryland late this month or in early December.

She added that a Palestinian state would only be established after Israel achieved its goal of security.

“Basically,” she told a news conference with Rice, “this is just the beginning and I think that the most important thing is the process itself.”

Israel Radio quoted a Palestinian official speaking on condition of anonymity as saying the Palestinians were “displeased” with her remarks, and were considering asking the US to phrase a compromise document.

The US, however, is unlikely to do so.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said Sunday that the negotiations were hard and difficult and Rice described the current situation as challenging.

While repeatedly expressing support for Israel’s security, Rice, addressing the same forum, warned that the “next generation of Palestinians will be lost souls of unbridled extremism” if no solution was reached with the current moderate Palestinian leadership.

The US has as yet been unable to issue formal invitations for the conference, as the sides bicker over the content and scope of the document they are to present there.