(photo credit: AP)
Despite American interest a few weeks back, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will not be meeting together with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas during her upcoming visit, Israeli and US officials said Monday.
The officials said there was preliminary talk a few weeks ago about arranging a tripartite meeting, to be followed by a joint press conference, but that those discussions went nowhere.
One Israeli official said that Olmert and Abbas were meeting often enough right now that they did not need Rice to mediate between them.
Diplomatic officials said that while a joint press conference would have been significant and would have been called only if they had something dramatic to announce, the absence of such a meeting and press conference did not necessarily mean that the two sides had run into a wall in their attempts to draw up some kind of paper to be presented at the planned international meeting later this year.
Israel and the PA disagree over the type of document to be presented at the meeting, with Israel insisting that it be a general declaration of principles, and the Palestinians demanding that it be a detailed framework agreement.
Olmert and Abbas agreed at their meeting in Jerusalem last week to establish negotiating teams to work on the document.
Rice, who was last here at the end of July, is scheduled to arrive on Wednesday and hold separate meetings in Jerusalem with Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Likud head Binyamin Netanyahu. She is then scheduled to hold a dinner meeting with Olmert.
On Thursday she is scheduled to travel to Ramallah for meetings with the PA leadership. She is scheduled to leave Thursday afternoon.
Meanwhile the US is pushing Israeli and Palestinian leaders toward an agreement this year that would put both sides on record on even small areas of accord but that probably would fall short of a full framework for peace.
"It's to help them start to bridge any differences across a whole wide range of issues" and capitalize on areas of agreement, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said Monday.
"I don't expect any writing of anything down to happen on this trip," McCormack said, pointing to the formation of lower-level committees to do any detailed drafting of an eventual joint statement or agreement.
Rice's top State Department aide for the Middle East told reporters Monday that the two leaders are considering a joint document that would give more structure to a recent series of one-on-one talks and other contacts.
"This is a very important moment and we think that we can make some progress here," Assistant Secretary of State David Welch said.
"For the first time here in quite some time I really do feel that there is an opportunity (and) with a little hard work - and that may take quite a bit of time - we can get it in a way that looks a little bit better."
The United States wants to see the two sides come to terms where they can, and put it in writing, even if most points of agreement concern comparatively small flash points. Examples of near-term agreement could include cooperation on security, roadblocks and other questions that affect the quality of lives in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, where most Palestinians live.
The United States does not rule out that Abbas and Olmert could reach a more ambitious agreement, but Rice and others have been intentionally vague about peace prospects and the details of the conference that President George W. Bush announced in July.
Rice is trying to build support for the international meeting but has met resistance from traditional Arab allies with misgivings about what it might produce.
Egypt and Jordan, which both have peace treaties with Israel, along with Saudi Arabia have said they are not interested in attending the session unless it has a chance of achieving concrete results.
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