JERUSALEM – In an effort to salvage a Middle East peace conference planned for next month, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice hoped to find some common ground during a meeting Monday with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
After her first round of talks with Israeli leaders on Sunday, State Department officials indicated the conference, called by President Bush, might have to be postponed.
Rice's trip to the West Bank was briefly delayed by a security alert that forced her vehicle to take cover in an Israeli fire station. Israeli police said they spotted a suspicious vehicle near a crossing point into the West Bank. It turned out to be a false alarm, and the convoy proceeded after a 15-minute stop.
The Israelis and Palestinians are hoping to hammer out a joint statement outlining a common vision for a future peace agreement, which they hope to present at the conference.
However, the two sides differ on whether prior agreement is essential. After Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told Rice that a statement of principles would be not be a condition for proceeding with the conference, Palestinians were saying the opposite — that they would not attend the gathering without a meaningful document that covers all the main outstanding issues.
These are the same issues that have defied solution for decades: borders for a Palestinian state and the extent of Israel's withdrawal from the West Bank, sharing Jerusalem and the fate of Palestinian refugees.
While Israel has hinted at ceding Jerusalem's Arab neighborhoods, that has not satisfied the Palestinians. They, like the Israelis, claim sovereignty over the key holy site, where the Al Aqsa mosque compound sits atop the ruins of the biblical Jewish temples. Israel further angered the Palestinians on Sunday by approving resumption of an archaeological dig and renovation project just outside the holy site.
Palestinians have shown some interest in land exchanges that would give them the equivalent of all of the West Bank while letting Israel keep some of its settlements, but details and quantities are far from agreement.
No discussions over refugees have been reported. Palestinians have traditionally demanded the right of about 700,000 people who fled or were driven out during the war that followed creation of the state of Israel 1948 to return to their original homes — along with millions of descendants. Israel rejects that as an attempt to destroy the Jewish state.
Palestinians also insist that the document include a solution for division of vital water resources. No talks have been reported on that issue.
Heads of negotiating teams have been appointed only in recent days — former Palestinian premier Ahmed Qureia last week and Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni on Sunday — and officials said they would meet for the first time later this week, six weeks before the tentative date of the Mideast gathering.
After Rice's first series of meetings Sunday, a senior State Department official hinted that the date could slide.
"This is going to take some time," the official told reporters on condition of anonymity to describe the private conversations. "This is going to require a lot of hands-on American diplomacy. These are really tough issues."
Rice cautioned against expecting breakthroughs during her four days of meetings, punctuated by a trip to Cairo and followed by talks in London with the king of Jordan.
Olmert also appeared to scale back hopes for broad agreement before the conference.
Olmert told his Cabinet on Sunday that he did not believe the joint statement was a prerequisite for the conference. He repeated that in his two-hour-plus meeting with Rice, according to his office.
The goal, Olmert said, "is to arrive at a joint statement during the international conference, even though the existence of such a statement was never a condition for holding this conference."
But the acting Palestinian foreign minister, Riad Malki, said his side would skip the conference without agreement on a statement.
"Without a document to resolve this conflict, we can't go to the conference next month," he said. "Olmert is looking for a public relations conference and one that will allow normalization with Arab countries. We will not help him in this."
Ahead of her meetings, Rice delivered a rare warning to Israel not to take any steps that might erode confidence in the peace process.
"This is a very delicate time," she said. "It's just a time to be extremely careful."
Her comments referred to the renewal of a road project that Palestinians fear is intended to tighten Israeli control over strategic West Bank areas near Jerusalem. Israel says construction is not imminent and is meant to ease Palestinian movement.
Rice also met with Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who later issued a statement saying the military's freedom of movement in the West Bank was a "fundamental principle that must be demanded in the future as well."
The comments from Barak, who later headed to Washington for talks with the Bush administration, came despite long-standing Palestinian demands for a reduced Israeli presence in the West Bank.
Rice is on her third trip to the region since June, when the United States began to try to revive peace efforts after the Islamic militant Hamas seized control of the Gaza Strip.
That takeover has left Abbas in control of just the West Bank. His expulsion of Hamas from the government has, in U.S. eyes, freed him to pursue a peace deal that would create a Palestinian state.