Rice back to press for joint statement

Secretary of state pessimistic regarding document; Beilin questions Barak's commitment to peace.

rice 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
rice 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice returned to Israel Saturday night for another round of talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders, in a renewed attempt to bridge the gaps ahead of the planned peace conference in the US. The top US diplomat, on her third visit to the region in six weeks, is expected to press Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to agree on the wording of a document about Palestinian statehood to be presented at the upcoming peace parley in Annapolis, Maryland. But on Saturday Rice dampened hopes of a breakthrough on her latest trip. "I absolutely don't expect there will be agreement on a document," she told reporters traveling with her on the plane from Turkey. "They are still working and, like with anything of this kind, they are going through some knotty discussions and I think those knotty discussions are going to continue for a while," Rice said. The conference is tentatively scheduled for the end of November or early December, but no invitations have been issued yet because of the discord between the two sides. It remains unclear whether the secretary of state will be able to bridge the differences between the Israelis and the Palestinians during this trip and to set a date for the much-touted meeting. It also remains uncertain which Arab countries will attend. Olmert, who will join Rice on Sunday for a working lunch, is under mounting pressure from his coalition not to discuss any division of Jerusalem at the conference. Abbas faces his own domestic constraints. Rice is also slated to meet Sunday with Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and special Quartet Middle East envoy Tony Blair ahead of a planned meeting with Abbas on Monday. Both Rice and Olmert are scheduled to speak Sunday night at the Saban Forum in Jerusalem. The Saban Center is a private group that promotes Middle East amity. Also on Sunday, Yossi Beilin, Chairman of the left-wing Meretz party, said that a peace agreement with the Palestinians could be reached within months following the Annapolis conference. In an interview on Israel Radio, Beilin said failure at the conference could lead to disaster. Beilin criticized Defense Minister Ehud Barak, saying that in the past few months the Labor party chairman had positioned his party to the right of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's Kadima. He added that Barak's actions raised doubts as to his intents for peace. Barak is also scheduled to meet with Rice during the day. In the meantime, efforts are under way to resuscitate the moribund road map peace plan, which stalled almost immediately after it was launched by the US four years ago. The road map's first phase calls for Israel to freeze settlement activity in the West Bank and for the Palestinians to dismantle armed groups. The plan never got off the ground.