Rice begins second round of talks with Abbas, Olmert


Ramallah : US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice began a second round of talks with Palestinian and Israeli leaders Wednesday, after returning from a one-day stop-over in Egypt aimed at garnering Arab support.

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Rice met Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah at noon, before heading back to Jerusalem for scheduled talks with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livnin in the afternoon.

Her parley with Abbas, and with Olmert, is the second since her arrival in the region Monday for an intense round of shuttle diplomacy, aimed at narrowing bitter differences between the two sides on the objectives of a proposed Middle East Conference.

Both have appointed high-ranking teams to negotiate a joint document ahead of it. But while Abbas wants to present a far-reaching agreement at the summit that addresses all of the core issues of their mutual conflict and would serve as the basis of a final peace agreement, Olmert – wary of a domestic coalition crisis – wants to limit himself to a non-binding, more vaguely-worded “understanding” that briefly touches on only some of these issues.

According to Israeli media reports, he wants to leave Jerusalem – perhaps the most sensitive of the core issues, which include borders, the Palestinian refugee problem and water out the joint declaration, and is expected to mention that the future of the disputed city will be dealt only in future negotiations.

As Rice was meeting Abbas, the leader of a key partner in Olmert’s governing coalition, Avigdor Lieberman of the far-right Israel Our Home party, said he supported transferring East Jerusalem’s outer suburbs that are far removed from the city centre to Palestinian sovereignty.

But he told reporters while touring the city that he opposed handing over neighbourhoods within occupied East Jerusalem itself, such as Silwan, located within the municipality boundaries.

Rice met Palestinian businessmen and local leaders in the southern West Bank city of Bethlehem, where she toured the Church of the Nativity accompanied by Palestinian Tourism Minister Kholoud Duabis.

In talks with Egyptian President Hosny Mubarak in Cairo Tuesday, Rice said the US has yet to set a date for the conference and would do so only after the parties came closer to agreeing on their joint document.

But she said the international meeting would be held by the end of the fall as announced by US President George W. Bush – in November or December in Annapolis, Maryland.

Rice is slated to round off her tour Thursday, after meeting Jordan’s King Abdullah in London as part of the efforts to get moderate Arab leaders behind the meeting