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(photo credit: AP)
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice sought support from Egypt on Tuesday in her quest to nudge Israelis and Palestinians closer together before November's Middle East peace conference, but Egypt's foreign minister warned the Annapolis meeting might have to be postponed unless a substantive agreement could be reached ahead of time.
Rice arrived in Cairo on Tuesday and met with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who has played a key role in mediating large and small conflicts between Israel and the Palestinians and among squabbling Palestinians factions.
But ahead of Rice's stop in Egypt, Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit accused some in Israel of trying to "deplete American efforts" to have a real peace agreement between the two sides for the meeting.
"Without addressing these attempts, we have to seriously think of postponing the conference to another appropriate time," Aboul Gheit said in a statement late Monday.
"Rushing into holding the meeting without an agreement over a substantive and positive document may damage opportunities to achieve a just peace," he said in statement.
After talks in the West Bank city of Ramallah on Monday, Rice said Israel and the Palestinians must agree on how and when to start formal peace talks.
In one of her strongest statements yet on the issue, Rice declared that the creation of a Palestinian state was a key US interest and urged the two sides to drop contentious demands and reach consensus on a substantive joint statement ahead of the international conference.
"Frankly, it's time for the establishment of a Palestinian state," Rice told a news conference with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who she saw on Tuesday, the second of an intense four-day Middle East shuttle diplomacy mission.
"The United States sees the establishment of a Palestinian state and a two-state solution as absolutely essential for the future, not just of Palestinians and Israelis but also for the Middle East and indeed to American interests," she said.
"That's really a message that I think only I can deliver," Rice said, explaining her mission to prepare for the conference to be held in Annapolis, Maryland, as early as late November.
The secretary is facing daunting challenges in trying to bring the two sides close enough to make the conference worthwhile and played down the chances for any breakthroughs before her arrival. She expects to return to the region at least once more before the conference takes place.
Rice will see both sides again on Wednesday after visiting Egypt. Then she will travel to London to meet Jordan's King Abdullah II in a bid to build support for the meeting among skeptical Arab nations.
In her talks in Jerusalem and the West Bank, she is seeking to bridge wide gaps between Israel and the Palestinians over the declaration to be endorsed in Annapolis that President Bush hopes will lead to negotiations for a final settlement of long-running conflict.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has said he does not see the document as a prerequisite for the conference. He wants it as vague as possible on critical so-called "final status issues" like the borders of a Palestinian state, the status of disputed Jerusalem, Israeli settlements and Palestinian refugees.
At the same time, Olmert hinted Monday that he is ready to share control of Jerusalem, saying for the first time that Israel could do without controlling some of the holy city's outlying Arab neighborhoods.
The Palestinians, meanwhile, have said they will not attend the conference without a document that contains details on these matters as well as a specific timeline for their resolution. Arab states share the Palestinian concerns.
"No doubt that before we go to (the conference), the document will be ready," said Abbas, whose authority has been limited to the West Bank since Hamas seized control of the Gaza Strip in June.
"The negotiations should not be open-ended, but subject to a certain time period," he added.
Negotiating teams headed by Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and a former Palestinian premier met in Jerusalem Monday for more than two hours, Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said. No progress was reported.