U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Thursday to try to bridge his differences with Israel over what a U.S.-led Middle East peace conference might achieve.
Rice has found growing interest in "intensifying the dialogue," a senior aide said, after her talks on Wednesday with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. She will see Olmert again, ending her two-day visit, after her session with Abbas.
Rice, meeting Israeli President Shimon Peres before traveling to the West Bank city of Ramallah, said she saw "a spirit and a desire to move towards peace" among Israelis and Palestinians, but there were "many obstacles to overcome."
Given little away
All sides have given little away on the specifics of their talks and details of the planned international gathering, expected to convene in mid-November or early December in Washington, remain unclear.
"It could range from zero to a full-blown agreement. They are not in a position yet to put a label on it," the senior State Department official told reporters when asked how Rice could reconcile seemingly contradictory Israeli and Palestinian views on the possible results of the conference.
"Labels are really not a very good way to capture what is going on," he said, adding: "This appears to be a serious discussion about fundamental issues."
Olmert has cautioned against expecting more than a declaration of principles for establishing a Palestinian state.
Abbas, whose Fatah faction lost control of the Gaza Strip to Hamas Islamists in June, has made clear he wants a deal that goes beyond previous agreements on the broad outlines of how the 60-year-old conflict can be resolved.
The Western-backed leader wants an agreement that sets a framework for resolving core disputes on borders, security and the status of Jerusalem and of Palestinian refugees from territory that is now Israel.
Rice was likely to hear concerns from Abbas over Israel's decision on Wednesday to declare the Gaza Strip an "enemy entity," as well as about the pace of Israeli moves to ease movement for people in the West Bank.
The West Bank-based Palestinian government has already said it wants Washington to press Israel not to cut energy and other supplies to the 1.5 million people of Gaza, despite hostility between Fatah and Hamas.
Rice, who U.S. officials said was unaware of Israel's plan when she flew in, said Washington shared Israeli opposition to Hamas but expected humanitarian supplies to continue.
She also said the internal Palestinian conflict should not jeopardize plans to found a single state in both the West Bank and Gaza.
The conference forms a major part of U.S. President George W. Bush's strategy to promote Middle East stability before he leaves office in a little over a year, ending a presidency marked by the violence in Iraq since the U.S. invasion.
He has encouraged Arab states to attend but several have said they would do so only if they saw it producing agreement on fundamental issues for Palestinians. Also unclear is whether states regarded as hostile, notably Syria, should be invited.
Highlighting uncertainty surrounding the nature of the gathering, when asked whether Syria would be welcome Rice told a news conference simply: "We haven't invited anyone yet."