This week, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will shuttle between Israel and the West Bank to help narrow gaps as Israel and the Palestinians try to frame contours of a final peace deal before a high stakes Mideast conference.
Rice was to arrive yesterday for her third visit to the region since Islamic Hamas militants violently took over the Gaza Strip in mid-June. She will meet with Palestinian and Israeli leaders to assess progress they have made on bridging divides ahead of the international conference, expected to take place in Annapolis, Maryland, at the end of next month.
One measure of the success of the US-sponsored meeting will be how far the sides move beforehand toward resolving key areas of dispute, like final borders, sovereignty over disputed Jerusalem and a solution for Palestinians who lost their homes in the war that followed Israel's 1948 creation. So far, the two sides are at odds over how detailed that peace deal framework should be, and both say no written agreement has been forged on any of these issues.
In recent days, a key Palestinian negotiator said that an agreement was nearer than ever, and another said land swaps could solve the thorny issue of Israeli settlements.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has said the time has come to stop letting excuses get in the way of peacemaking, and a top ally has been publicly discussing a subject that was long taboo -- sharing sovereignty in Jerusalem.
But Israel has been pressing for a vaguely worded document that would give it more room to maneuver. The Palestinians, by contrast, want a detailed preliminary agreement with a timetable for creating a Palestinian state.
The document that is to be presented at the conference "should be a detailed, clear-cut document on the final status issues," lead Palestinian negotiator Ahmed Qureia said on Saturday after meeting with US diplomat David Welch.
If the two sides don't agree on a peace deal framework ahead of the conference, the US won't even bother to hold the meeting, another Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat has predicted.
Rice will be making day trips to Egypt and Jordan during her five-day visit to the region to try to build Arab support for the conference.
If regional powerhouses like Saudi Arabia that don't have ties with Israel skip the meeting for fear it will be more grandstanding than substance, then that, too, could undercut its success.
With so much unresolved ahead of the conference, the US has not even scheduled the meeting or sent invitations.
Peacemaking ground to a halt in early 2001 after the breakdown of US-sponsored talks and the outbreak of the second Palestinian uprising against Israel.
Under pressure from Washington, Israel and the Palestinians have taken on the explosive issues that have scuttled peace efforts in the past. The hope is that these talks will produce a historic agreement that will be the centerpiece of the international conference.
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