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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Rice in Mideast to Spearhead Talks

RAMALLAH, West Bank -- An upcoming U.S.-sponsored Middle East conference must be substantive, and Israel and the Palestinians should draft a document beforehand that lays the foundation for serious peace talks, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Thursday, after meeting Palestinian leaders.

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 will only attend if concrete results are achieved.

The United States has not yet set a date or released a list of those attending.

Rice told a news conference, with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas by her side, that the meeting must be "substantive" and that participants must not "simply meet for the sake of meeting."

"I will work, I know that the president and [Israeli] Prime Minister Olmert will work, and their teams will work very aggressively, very urgently, to lay the groundwork for a successful meeting," she said.

The two sides should draft a document before the conference that will "lay the foundations for serious negotiations," she said, before returning to Jerusalem for talks with the Israeli leader.

An Abbas aide, Nabil Amr, said the secretary of state told Abbas that the hardest issues -- borders of a future Palestinian state, the fate of refugees and the status of Jerusalem -- would be discussed.

"The meeting was successful from our point of view, because Rice has reassured President Abbas that the conference will address the core issues," Amr said.

Israel has said it is premature to discuss the thorniest issues at the core of the Middle East conflict.

The Hamas rulers of Gaza played down the importance of the conference. "Any agreement that might result from the U.S.-designed peace conference this fall will not be binding for the Palestinian people," Hamas government spokesman Taher Nunu told the local Al-Quds radio station in Gaza.

Israel and the United States have expressed hope that they can make progress in peace efforts with Abbas' new moderate government, based in the West Bank.

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.

Abbas said he believed some Arab countries were hesitant to confirm attendance because the objectives were 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 United States. "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 expected the conference to begin 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.