Rice to Tell PM: Bilateral Statement Before Conference Must Be 'Concrete'

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice begins a five-day visit to the region today in a bid to advance a joint Israeli-Palestinian statement ahead of the Annapolis peace conference at the end of November. U.S. officials have said in preparatory talks that the U.S. would not issue invitations to the summit before Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas have formulated a clear joint document.

Rice is to meet Olmert today to persuade him that the statement must be "concrete" and present a "diplomatic horizon" to the Palestinians, and not to make due with the general statement Olmert is said to want. Olmert favors a statement that is a declaration of principles so he can keep Shas and Yisrael Beiteinu from bolting the coalition.

Rice is to meet this week with the leaders of both these factions, ministers Eli Yishai (Shas) and Avigdor Lieberman (Yisrael Beiteinu) to gain an understanding of their objections and concerns. From Olmert's point of view, these meetings are a means of showing Rice the political difficulties he faces.

Rice may also meet with Olmert and Abbas together and make short visits to Egypt and Jordan.

Senior U.S. State Department officials want the Annapolis declaration to present the principles for a permanent status agreement and to leave the details for subsequent bilateral talks. For example, the declaration could determine the formula for exchanges of territory on either side of the Green Line, and leave for subsequent discussion the question of which territories would be exchanged.

Concerns have been mounting in Washington that the talks may falter because of the high expectations of the Palestinians as reflected in their public statements. The Americans are worried that the Palestinians are entrenching themselves in positions in which they will have difficulty compromising, and that Israel cannot accept.

For example, last week Abbas said the area of the Palestinian state should be 6,502 square kilometers, which is the area of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip according to the 1967 borders. Other senior Palestinians said that in secret talks between Olmert and Abbas, Olmert did not reject the idea that the talks would be based on the proposal Israel gave the Palestinians at the Taba talks in January 2001 at the end of Ehud Barak's term as prime minister. That proposal involved Israel's withdrawal almost entirely from the West Bank and agreement to accept tens of thousands of Palestinians. Israeli sources said Olmert agreed to no such thing.

Rice will try to persuade Abbas to check his expectations, which if overblown could lead to a breakdown in the talks even before Annapolis. U.S. officials said in the preparatory sessions that Rice in part agreed with Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Defense Minister Ehud Barak that overly high expectations should not be nurtured. However, they say Rice believes that "on the outside expectations should be lowered, but inside the bilateral talks expectations must remain high because only then is there a chance that the joint declaration will constitute progress and achievements."

Rice is to meet today with Barak a few hours before he leaves on his first visit to Washington as defense minister. In their previous meeting last month Rice was reportedly dissatisfied with Israel's pledge to remove only 24 roadblocks in the West Bank. A diplomatic source said Rice had asked Barak to make greater effort to ease Palestinian movement.