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(photo credit: AP [file])
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice plans to shuttle between Jerusalem and Ramallah starting next week in an effort to narrow the gaps ahead of the Middle East peace conference tentatively scheduled for next month in Maryland.
The open-ended visit was announced by State Department spokesman Sean McCormack on Wednesday after Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas agreed that their negotiating teams would meet regularly, beginning next week, to draft a joint statement to be presented to the conference.
The two leaders decided that formal negotiations on core issues such as borders, Jerusalem, settlements and refugees would only commence after the Maryland gathering.
Rice will travel to Israel and visit the Palestinian Authority, with possible stops in neighboring Arab states.
An American diplomatic source told The Jerusalem Post that although Rice would encourage the sides to draw up a joint document that could create the right atmosphere for the conference, she would not become involved with the details of the negotiating teams' work. Instead, she would focus on planning for the conference in terms of agenda, timing and level of participation.
According to the source, it was possible that formal invitations would be issued when the secretary returned home after her Middle East trip.
"The hard work has already begun, the really hard work is about to begin," McCormack told reporters.
"Part of that work is going to be the secretary going out next week to the Middle East," he said. "I would expect that there is going to be a lot of going back and forth among various parties in the region."
McCormack said there had been "encouraging statements" about the upcoming meeting from expected participants, including the Israelis and Palestinians.
Sources in Jerusalem said following Wednesday's meeting between Olmert and Abbas, which was held in the succa at the Prime Minister's Residence in the capital, that the negotiators would meet in secret at regular intervals until a statement was drafted. Olmert and Abbas will also continue to meet every fortnight.
PA Information Minister Riad Malki said Thursday that the Palestinians had "high expectations" of the upcoming conference, particularly in the wake of Abbas's recent talks with US President George W. Bush and other world leaders in New York. His remarks contradicted those of other PA officials who have been seeking to lower expectations.
Malki said the Bush administration had informed the Palestinians that the conference invitees would include representatives of the Quartet, the Group of Eight countries, the permanent members of the UN Security Council, 12 Arab countries - including Syria and Lebanon - Turkey, Indonesia and Malaysia.
"President Abbas has also asked the US administration to invite India, South Africa, Brazil, Greece and Spain," Malki told reporters in Ramallah. "This wide participation would turn the gathering into a big international conference that would contribute to resolving the Palestinian issue."
Summing up the Palestinian strategy toward the conference, Malki said the current negotiations with Israel must lead to a "fundamental document" regarding the final-status issues.
The conference participants, he added, would then be requested to endorse the document. Following the conference, the Israelis and Palestinians would start six months of intensive negotiations on all the details of the core issues.
After the two principals reach a final agreement, another international peace conference would be convened to endorse it - on condition that it had first been approved by the Palestinians through a national referendum.
The PA minister, nonetheless, did not rule out the possibility that the Palestinians would boycott next month's conference if they failed to reach an agreement with Israel on the core issues in the coming weeks. "There's no point in participating in a weak conference," Malki said. "Israel will then bear responsibility for the failure of the negotiations. The Palestinians, for their part, are determined to reach an agreement."
Sa'di al-Krunz, a member of the PA team negotiating with Israel, warned Thursday that a failure of the conference would lead to a "big disaster." He also called on Israel to take significant measures on the ground ahead of the summit, such as removing checkpoints and halting the policy of detentions, incursions and targeted killings.