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(photo credit: AP)
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas told visiting US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Thursday that he was serious about reaching a deal with Israel on the fundamental issues of Jerusalem, borders and refugees ahead of the US-sponsored peace conference, which is due to be held in November.
PA officials expressed satisfaction with Rice's visit, saying she vowed Washington would do its utmost to ensure the success of the conference.
They said Abbas and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert would meet at least three more times before the conference in a bid to bridge the gap between them.
Abbas said his talks with Olmert over the past few weeks focused on ways of reaching an agreement that would include a timetable for implementing a deal on these core issues.
Abbas said the conference should constitute the first step toward ending Israeli "occupation" and implementing the road map, United Nations resolutions and the Arab League peace plan.
"The time has come for the establishment of a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital that will exist alongside Israel in peace and security," Abbas told reporters after a two-hour meeting with Rice. He said their talks also focused on ensuring the success of the upcoming conference.
Asked about the participation of Arab countries, he said: "The situation remains unclear regarding this conference. Those who called for the conference must clarify this issue to the parties. Then, I believe, the Arab countries may participate if they are invited."
For the peace process to regain credibility, Abbas said, Israel must stop the construction of settlements and the security barrier and lift the closures in the Palestinian territories.
Abbas also criticized Israel's decision to declare the Gaza Strip hostile territory and warned that "collective punishment" would undermine his efforts to achieve peace with Israel and to impose law and order in the Palestinian territories.
He also said he would meet US President George W. Bush next week on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly meeting in New York "to continue our intensive discussions with the aim of reaching final settlement."
Rice said the Middle East conference must be "substantive" and that the two sides must draft a document before the meeting to lay "foundations for serious negotiations."
"We need a meeting that will advance the cause of the Palestinian state. That is the only reason to have a meeting. The president of the United States has no intention of inviting the international communityâ€¦for a meeting that is not substantive," she added.
Also Thursday, Ahmed Yusef, political adviser to Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, revealed that his movement was conducting secret talks with Fatah. He told the Bethlehem-based Maan news agency that some people in Abbas's office and within Fatah were more willing than ever to accept mediation to resolve the crisis between Hamas and Fatah.
Yusef said Hamas would be prepared to hand back security installations in the Gaza Strip to Fatah in the context of reconciliation between the two parties. He also expressed Hamas's readiness to declare a long-term truce with Israel.