US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice sought support from Egypt yesterday in her quest to nudge Israelis and Palestinians closer together before a Middle East peace conference tentatively set for late next month, but Egypt's foreign minister warned the meeting might have to be postponed unless a substantive agreement could be reached ahead of time.
Rice arrived in Cairo and was scheduled to speak with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who has played a key role in mediating large and small conflicts between Israel and the Palestinians and among Palestinians factions.
But ahead of Rice's arrival, Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit accused some in Israel of trying to "deplete American efforts" to have a real peace agreement between the two sides for the meeting.
"Without addressing these attempts, then we have to seriously think of postponing the conference to another appropriate time," Aboul Gheit said in a statement late on Monday.
"Rushing into holding the meeting without an agreement over a substantive and positive document may damage opportunities to achieve a just peace," he said in statement.
After talks in the West Bank city of Ramallah on Monday, Rice said Israel and the Palestinians must agree on how and when to start formal peace talks.
In one of her strongest statements yet on the issue, Rice declared that creation of a Palestinian state is a key US interest and urged the two sides to drop contentious demands and reach consensus on a substantive joint statement ahead of the international conference.
"Frankly, it's time for the establishment of a Palestinian state," Rice told a news conference with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who she saw yesterday.
"The United States sees the establishment of a Palestinian state and a two-state solution as absolutely essential for the future, not just of Palestinians and Israelis but also for the Middle East and indeed to American interests," she said.
"That's really a message that I think only I can deliver," Rice said, explaining her mission to prepare for the conference to be held in Annapolis, Maryland.
Rice will see both sides again today after visiting Egypt. Then she will travel to London to meet Jordan's King Abdullah II in a bid to build support for the meeting among skeptical Arab nations.
In her talks in Jerusalem and the West Bank, she is seeking to bridge wide gaps between Israel and the Palestinians over the declaration to be endorsed in Annapolis that US President George W. Bush hopes will lead to negotiations for a final settlement of long-running conflict.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has said he does not see the document as a prerequisite for the conference. He wants it as vague as possible on critical so-called "final status issues" like the borders of a Palestinian state, the status of disputed Jerusalem, Israeli settlements and Palestinian refugees.
At the same time, Olmert hinted on Monday that he is ready to share control of Jerusalem, saying for the first time that Israel could do without controlling some of the holy city's outlying Arab neighborhoods.
The Palestinians have said they will not attend the conference without a document that contains details on these matters as well as a timeline for their resolution.
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