Rice Hopes to Smooth Way for Mideast Peace

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is in the Middle East for the third time in six weeks, trying to bridge the gaps between Israelis and Palestinians. She's looking for a joint declaration of principles ahead of a peace conference that's expected before year's end in Annapolis, Maryland.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Renee Montagne.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is in the Middle East today, for the third time in six weeks. She's trying to bridge the gaps between Israelis and Palestinians. She's looking for a joint declaration of principles ahead of a peace conference that's expected before the year's end to be held in Annapolis, Maryland.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert says he wants progress on a peace deal with Palestinians before President Bush leaves office.

NPR's Linda Gradstein reports.

LINDA GRADSTEIN: It was Olmert's strongest speech yet in favor of the U.S.-sponsored peace talks that are meant to lead to an independent Palestinian state.

At a dinner last night sponsored by the Saban Center of the Brookings Institute, Olmert spoke forcefully in Hebrew with a message to the Israeli public. The speech was broadcast live on Israel television.

Prime Minister EHUD OLMERT (Israel): (Hebrew spoken)

GRADSTEIN: Annapolis will be the jumping-off point for continued, serious and in-depth negotiations, he said. They will not avoid any issue that has clouded our relations with the Palestinian people for many years.

He was referring to what are called the core issues of the conflict including the final borders of a Palestinians state, the status of Jerusalem, the removal of Israeli settlements from the West Bank, and the fate of Palestinian refugees.

At the same dinner, Secretary Rice praised Olmert for willingness to tackle the difficult issues. She also spoke highly of the current Palestinian leadership.

Secretary CONDOLEEZZA RICE (U.S. Department of State): President Abbas and his government are demonstrating that they are real partners for peace. And President Abbas is showing that he and his government have the will to fight terrorism and govern effectively, even if they do not always have the capacity.

GRADSTEIN: At the same time, just three weeks before a date that was mentioned for the peace conference, invitations have not been issued. Israeli and U.S. officials say there's still no written proposal.

Palestinian Chief Negotiator Saeb Erekat today said Palestinians want Rice to issue a deadline for Israel to freeze all settlement activity and dismantle dozens of unauthorized settlement outposts. He said any joint document must include a time table for negotiations. Israel has so far balked. Yet, Secretary Rice told journalists, she is confident the conference will take place.

Sec. RICE: It's not quite ripe yet for invitations, but, well, people will - I don't - I have a feeling that when we do deliver invitations, we won't find many people who will just say, well, I'm sorry. I'm busy. Yeah. I think we can - I think we'll be okay on that part.

GRADSTEIN: A senior Israeli official said Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and Syria are expected to attend as well.

Linda Gradstein, NPR News, Jerusalem.

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