Rice Renews Push for Israeli-Palestinian Talks

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Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is at the U.N. promoting a plan for a conference on Middle East peace this fall. A senior U.S. official says Rice wants to include Syria, along with other Arab nations, in the conference the United States is hosting.

Rice spelled out some of the details in a session Sunday afternoon of the so-called "quartet" — the United States, the United Nations, Russia and the European Union.

Rice has made the issue one of her priorities, but observers if she is to pull off a meaningful conference, she has an uphill battle ahead.

Just back from a trip to the Middle East, Rice is hoping to gather the Israelis, Palestinians, Arab and other key states for a conference this fall meant to give new impetus to Palestinian statehood.

U.S. officials have not committed to a date, although mid-November looks likely. And Rice has not given out invitations or set an agenda. She reassured Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas last week in Ramallah that what she wants is a serious international meeting.

"We have many things to do. We don't need a photo opportunity. We need a meeting that will advance the cause of a Palestinian state. That is the only reason to have such a meeting," Rice said.

But Abbas is under pressure at home not to attend the conference unless it deals with the so-called "final status issues," the thorniest problems dividing Israelis and Palestinians. Key Arab states, including Saudi Arabia, have been holding out for more details.

Robert Malley of the International Crisis Group says the best anyone can hope for is a definition of the endgame: a statement on what the final status agreement should look like — which would be enshrined in a U.N. Security Council resolution.

But he thinks Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert are still too far apart, and Rice's style of letting the parties take the lead may not be of much help.

And Malley says even if the two sides do reach an agreement on the endgame, getting there in the current environment is virtually impossible.

"You have a situation on the ground that remains for the Palestinians at least as bad as it has ever been. And you have this division between the Palestinians — between the West Bank and Gaza between Fatah and Hamas — which is going to make it virtually impossible for any Palestinian leader to get an agreement endorsed by his people, let alone endorsed on the ground," Malley says.

Despite the odds, Rice has made the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations one of her priorities. Aaron David Miller of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars says Rice is interested in building her legacy.

"That interest is driven in part by Abbas and Olmert's frustration and in part by her own desire to do consequential diplomacy — something that would be recognized as 'Condeoleezza Rice took a hard issue, worked it and made it better.' The problem is that desperation and the ticking clock alone aren't sufficient," Miller says.

An adviser to six former secretaries of state on the Middle East, Miller says if Rice really wants to make her mark, she'll have to do more heavy lifting and some serious prep work for this conference.

President Bush is also weighing in, in a more public way: He meets Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in New York Monday.

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