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Rice sees hope for Mideast diplomacy

Pushes for fall peace conference

LONDON - Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said yesterday she was encouraged by a round of furious Mideast diplomacy to prepare a US-hosted peace conference in the fall despite divisions between Israel and the Palestinians that could derail it.

With tensions running high and time running out to plan the meeting, a senior US official said Rice would return to the region at the end of October or early November after National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley goes there next week to press the two sides to launch formal peace talks.

Hadley's trip, so close on the heels of Rice's visit this week, is intended to move the two sides closer and underscore US commitment to the creation of a Palestinian state, the official said.

Rice said four days of intense discussions with Israeli and Palestinian officials had convinced her they are serious about forging a document that, when endorsed at the conference in late November or December, would start the negotiations.

At the same time, she acknowledged that planning for the meeting in Annapolis, Md., was entering its most difficult phase with the parties at deep odds over the substance of the joint declaration - differences that could force a delay or cancellation of the session.

"I think they are very serious," she said. "The teams are serious, the people are serious, the issues are serious, so I am not surprised that there are tensions, I am not surprised there are some ups and downs.

"That is the character of this kind of endeavor, but I was encouraged by what I heard," she told reporters as she flew to London after her seventh Mideast trip this year during which she shuttled between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Rice's return trip also will take her to a meeting of Iraq neighbors in Istanbul, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the trip plans had not been formally announced.

The flurry of diplomatic activity aims to push Israel and the Palestinians into consensus on the substance of the conference's joint declaration, which would outline a way for the two sides to return to the negotiating table after seven years of bloodshed and diplomatic paralysis. The Palestinians and their Arab allies such as Egypt and Jordan are insisting the document be detailed and specific with a timetable for formal peace talks. The Israelis want language that is more vague.

Rice won public backing for the conference from a skeptical Egypt during a stop Tuesday in Cairo, and appeared to soothe Jordanian concerns at a private lunch in London with King Abdullah II yesterday.

President Bush has promised that the conference and the declaration it is to produce will be "serious and substantive."

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