Hoping to breathe life into moribund peace efforts, the US will gather Israeli and Palestinian leaders to discuss an eventual independent Palestinian state, US President George W. Bush's top diplomat said on Monday.
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice also asked Arab allies to help support the fragile government in Iraq, on whose success much of Bush's new plan to turn the war around will depend.
The US-Israeli-Palestinian meeting would be the first among the main parties thought necessary to draft any settlement in the six-decade-long dispute. It represents more direct involvement from a US administration that has sometimes viewed Mideast peacemaking as a fool's errand.
"The parties haven't talked about these issues for a long time," Rice told reporters following a meeting with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Luxor following a three-day visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories.
"It's been at least six years since they talked about these issues," Rice said. "It seems wise to begin this ... informal discussion, to just really sit and talk about the issues."
Diplomats described a preliminary session meant to build confidence after years of fighting and rhetorical sniping.
It is designed to strengthen Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in his internal power struggle with Palestinian Islamic militants and to offer Palestinians a glimpse of their future that makes negotiating with Israel seem worthwhile.
Instead of talking about the daily frictions and threats that define the deeply mistrustful Israeli-Palestinian relationship, an informal session could look ahead to what Rice has called broader issues, and certainly more attractive ones, US officials said.
"It's very clear what we mean by `broader issues,'" Rice said. "We mean what would lead to the establishment of a Palestinian state."
Recent prospects for Mideast peace have looked dim, with the Hamas radicals in charge of much of the Palestinian government, street clashes among the Palestinian factions, a Western aid cutoff and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's weakened political position following Israel's summer war in Lebanon.
Abbas and Olmert agreed to attend the session, to be held in three or four weeks, during their separate weekend meetings with Rice, US officials said. Rice would represent the US, with the thought that Bush could participate at a future session if initial discussions go well.
In Israel, Olmert confirmed the planned meet with Rice and Abbas.
Saeb Erekat, an aide to Abbas, could not confirm whether Abbas would attend, but said "in principle" the Palestinians are prepared to take part. He praised Rice's attentiveness during a session with Abbas in his Ramallah headquarters on Sunday.
"She reflected seriousness, interest,'" Erekat said. "She reflected an understanding of the bigger picture of what is going on in the region, and the need to put this thing behind us, the Arab-Israeli conflict."
US officials said Rice wanted to capitalize on momentum from a much-awaited meeting between Olmert and Abbas, which was held last month. Abbas reminded Rice that Israel has not delivered on promises from that meeting, and US officials want to nudge the two leaders to keep talking.
The Bush administration has devoted more effort to resolving the conflict in Bush's second term in office, and Rice has said Bush wants to make a mark on the process before he leaves office.
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