Rice Says International Peace Conference Must Be 'Substantive'

Thursday, September 20th 2007, 7:17 am
By: News On 6

RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) _ Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Thursday an upcoming U.S.-sponsored Mideast conference must be ``substantive,'' and that Israel and the Palestinians must draft a document beforehand that lays ``foundations for serious negotiations.''

The Palestinians want the conference, tentatively set for November, to yield an outline for a peace deal, complete with a timetable, while Israel wants a vaguer declaration of intent. Key Arab states, such as Saudi Arabia, have said they would only attend if concrete results are achieved.

Palestinian leaders pressed Rice about the goal of the conference.

The conference ``has to be substantive and advance the cause of a Palestinian state,'' Rice told a joint news conference with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Participants must not ``simply meet for the sake of meeting,'' she said.

Before the meeting, Abbas aides said he would urge Rice to invite all relevant Arab states to the conference, including Syria and Lebanon, and not to set a date for the gathering unless a successful outcome is assured.

The U.S. has not set a date or agenda for the conference, and it has not announced the invitees.

Abbas told the news conference that he believes some Arab countries are hesitant to confirm their attendance because the objectives are not clear.

``I think many issues need to be clarified and I think it's the duty of the hosts of the conference,'' he said, referring to the U.S. ``When things are clarified, I think the Arab countries, and I'm not ... speaking on their behalf, will attend that conference,'' he said.

Abbas said he expects the conference to launch serious negotiations with Israel.

``We believe the time is right for the establishment of an independent Palestinian state, with east Jerusalem as its capital, and for living side by side in peace and security with the state of Israel,'' Abbas said.

Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert have held periodic talks in recent months, and agreed to set up negotiating teams that would try to reach the general outline of a peace deal ahead of the conference.

Abbas said he informed Rice of the composition of the Palestinian negotiating team. He didn't announce the names publicly, but his aides said it will be headed by former Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia, who led interim peace talks with Israel in the 1990s.

Rice has not said if the conference would address the hardest issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, including the borders of a Palestinian state, a solution for Palestinian refugees and the status of disputed Jerusalem.

In preparatory talks with Israel, the Palestinians have been pushing for a detailed document addressing these core issues ahead of the conference. Israel has said it prefers a vaguer declaration, saying it is premature to discuss the thorniest issues at the core of the Mideast conflict.

Rice said that whatever the final nature of the document, it must lay ``foundations for serious negotiations.''

Abbas, meanwhile, said he is to meet next week with President Bush during the U.N. General Assembly in New York. The two leaders last met a year ago, also during the General Assembly.

Thursday's meetings were overshadowed by Israel's decision a day earlier to designate Hamas-ruled Gaza as ``hostile territory,'' accompanied by a threat to cut back vital supplies of fuel and electricity.

Abbas has denounced the decision as ``oppressive'' and said it would increase the suffering of Gaza's residents. However, Abbas didn't call off peace efforts with Israel in response to the move. And Olmert's office said the decision still required a legal review, suggesting it could be a means to pressure Gaza militants to halt rocket fire.

But Israel's threat is likely to reinforce perceptions among Palestinians and their Arab backers that Israel will do as it sees fit regardless of the cost to civilians, and that the U.S. will not block Israel's hand.

Asked to comment on the decision Wednesday, Rice said, ``We will not abandon the innocent Palestinians in Gaza, and indeed will make every effort to deal with their humanitarian needs.''

But she did not criticize the Israeli move, saying, ``Hamas is a hostile entity to the United States as well.''

Abbas, too, is in a bitter struggle with Gaza's Hamas rulers, who seized control of the coastal strip in June and forced him to set up a separate government in the West Bank.

The violent Islamic Jihad group, meanwhile, said Thursday it would not halt rocket fire on Israel, despite Israel's threats. Abu Ahmed, a spokesman for Islamic Jihad militants, said that ``rockets are an affirmation of our option of continuing holy war and resistance against the occupation.''

``Therefore, resistance will only stop if the (Israeli) occupation ends,'' he said.

Israel's decision came just hours before Rice's arrival Wednesday, for meetings with Olmert and other Israeli leaders, as part of the preparations for the fall conference. Rice was to speak with Olmert again after her meeting with Abbas.