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Rice wins Egypt’s backing for conference

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Tuesday won tempered Egyptian support in her quest to nudge Israelis and Palestinians closer together ahead of a Mideast peace conference to be held in November or December.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Tuesday won tempered Egyptian support in her quest to nudge Israelis and Palestinians closer together ahead of a Mideast peace conference to be held in November or December.

Egypt, a key mediator between the Arabs and Israel, and other key Arab allies have expressed skepticism over the conference in past weeks, fearing it would be merely symbolic without making real progress in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. A day earlier, Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit spoke of postponing it.

But Aboul Gheit said his meeting with Rice on Tuesday “gives us a lot of trust and confidence” about American intentions for the conference, though he cautioned that preparations to hammer out the agenda could take more time.

Rice “has helped us to understand the American objective. She shed a great deal of light on the current American efforts,” he told reporters.

“We feel encouraged regarding what we heard from Secretary Rice and promised her that we would help and we would help the parties as well in order to achieve the objective which is launching the permanent status negotiations that would lead to the establishment of a Palestinian state on both the Palestinian territories,” he said.

Timing still up in air
Rice and Aboul Gheit said the timing of the conference depended on progress in Israeli-Palestinian talks on hammering out an agreement to be sealed at the gathering, expected to be in Annapolis, Md. The Palestinians want the document to address core issues of the peace negotiations, while Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert wants a vaguer statement.

“We will continue to work and help them to create this document and we will then be in a position I think fairly soon to talk about when this meeting ought to take place,” Rice said.

Rice headed back to Jerusalem, where she was to hold separate talks on Wednesday with Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Still, Aboul Gheit said the conference should be put off if a strong deal is not reached.

“We have to go into the meeting ready to launch negotiations,” he said. “It can be done if we have enough determination on the part of the (Bush) administration.”

Palestinian and Israeli negotiating teams met for a second time on Monday to try to thrash out details of the joint document. “So far, no advances have been made, and we are not deluding ourselves,” Palestinian negotiator Yasser Abed Rabbo said Tuesday.

Arab League chief friendlier
Last week, Arab League chief Amr Moussa — whom Rice was also meeting Tuesday — derided the conference, saying the Americans were just hoping for a photo opportunity between Saudi and Israeli officials.

But after meeting Rice on Tuesday, Moussa said he “felt American seriousness concerning the peace conference and a great desire on the American side to push matters positively toward a serious conference.”

Aboul Gheit on Tuesday suggested Egypt would work with the Palestinians and Israelis to help solidify the agenda. “All of us are required to help in drafting the parameters, the principles, the understandings, whatever will launch the negotiations on a sound basis,” he said.

There were some tensions over U.S. criticism of human rights in Egypt. Rice told their press conference that in her talks with Mubarak and Aboul Gheit she brought up the issue of the detentions of four independent newspaper editors given prison sentences or put on trial for criticizing Mubarak.

“When we touch on issues we considered sensitive and internal, I listen. But my response is always that it is due process,” Aboul Gheit retorted. “This government does not interfere in Egyptian legal procedures.”

On Monday and earlier Tuesday, Rice pressed Israeli and Palestinian leaders to push ahead in their talks on the conference agenda. In one of her strongest statements yet on the issue, Rice declared that creation of a Palestinian state is a key U.S. interest and urged the two sides to drop contentious demands and reach consensus on a substantive joint statement.

After meeting both sides again Tuesday and Wednesday, Rice will travel to London to meet Jordan’s King Abdullah II, trying to build support among skeptical Arab nations.