No high hopes on Mideast trip, Rice says

Times Staff Writer

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Sunday sought to downplay expectations as she began several days of shuttle diplomacy designed to nudge the Palestinians and Israelis closer to the bargaining table in advance of a U.S. peace conference.

Rice met with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, and planned to meet today with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank city of Ramallah.

“I don’t expect . . . that there will be any particular outcome in the sense of breakthroughs,” Rice told reporters on a flight from Moscow to Tel Aviv.


Her five-day visit to the region, Rice said, was unlikely to produce a Palestinian-Israeli statement of intended goals for the conference or even bring the process to the point where formal invitations could be issued for the gathering planned for next month in Annapolis, Md.

Rice also met Sunday with Israeli Trade Minister Eli Yishai, a hard-liner whose right-wing Shas Party is likely to oppose serious Israeli concessions at the November conference.

But a senior State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity, denied that Rice was seeking to prevent a potential post-summit Shas withdrawal from Olmert’s government. “This is a coalition government. The prime minister does have partners,” the official said, “and we want to hear from them.”

In the days leading up to Rice’s visit, public statements from both the Israelis and Palestinians highlighted a large gap in expectations of what the conference could produce.

Abbas is pressing for definitive agreements on deeply divisive issues such as right of return for Palestinian refugees and a timetable for the creation of a Palestinian state.

Palestinian officials have painted the gathering as a virtual referendum on the viability of negotiations. Their chief negotiator, former Prime Minister Ahmed Korei, has said that failure to return from Annapolis with something substantial in hand would trigger a third intifada, or uprising, by the Palestinians.


Israeli government officials, however, seem to view the conference as a starting point for a much longer and, at least initially, vaguer process. Olmert, who on Sunday appointed Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni as the Israelis’ lead negotiator, said he opposed any fixed timetable, but added that he and Abbas had achieved “a great deal of understanding” on the goals for the summit.

Israeli analysts and commentators seem largely pessimistic about the prospects for a breakthrough to the decades-long standoff.

“There is a chance that before long Rice will be joining other senior American officials who visited our quagmire, tried to swim in it, almost drowned and went home with nothing,” said Yaron Dekel, a prominent Israeli journalist and radio talk-show host.

The State Department official acknowledged that “substantial and difficult issues” stood in the way of a lasting peace agreement, and noted that Rice was making her seventh trip to Israel this year. “This is going to require a lot of hands-on American diplomacy,” he said.

Rice also plans to meet this week with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Jordanian King Abdullah II in an attempt to shore up Arab support for the conference. Seemingly skeptical Arab governments have refused to commit to sending high-level representatives to the November meeting.

The State Department official cited Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia as the key Arab states whose support could bring momentum and credibility to the negotiations.

“It’s really important to bring them steadily into this process,” he said.

Syrian President Bashar Assad has said that his government would take part only if the future of the Golan Heights, which Israel captured in 1967, was on the table. Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has called on Muslim nations to boycott the conference.