Rice laying groundwork for Mideast peace talks

JERUSALEM — JERUSALEM -- Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice sought to play down expectations yesterday as she began several days of shuttle diplomacy designed to nudge Israelis and Palestinians closer to the bargaining table in advance of a Middle East peace conference.

Rice met with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and with Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, and was expected to go to Ramallah today for a meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.


"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, Israel.

Her five-day visit, Rice said, is unlikely to produce a joint Palestinian-Israeli statement of intended goals at 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.


Rice also met yesterday with Israel's trade minister, Eli Yishai, a hard-liner whose right-wing Shas Party is likely to oppose Israeli concessions at the November conference. But a senior State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity, denied that Rice is trying to prevent a potential post-summit Shas withdrawal from Olmert's coalition government.

Israel's "is a coalition government," the State Department official said. "The prime minister does have partners, and we want to hear from them."

Meanwhile, Rice and Israeli officials declined to confirm or deny a report that an Israeli airstrike against Syria last month had bombed a partly built nuclear reactor of North Korean design.

The report, published Saturday in The New York Times, was featured prominently in the Israeli news media yesterday. But Israeli officials continued their silence about the Sept. 6 attack, though they have signaled that they are proud of the operation; a senior military official said it had restored "military deterrence" in the region.

Former Israeli officials and intelligence experts would not discuss whether Israel had hit a nuclear reactor that was under construction. But they said the report was plausible, given their understanding of Syria's ambitions to acquire nonconventional weapons and its long-standing quest for strategic parity with Israel.

In the days leading up to Rice's visit, public statements from the Israelis and the Palestinians served to underscore a large gap in expectations as to what the Maryland conference can produce.

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

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


Israeli officials, however, seem to view the conference as a starting point for a much longer and, at least initially, vaguer process. Olmert, who appointed Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni yesterday as Israel's lead negotiator, said he opposes any kind of fixed timetable but added that he and Abbas have achieved "a great deal of understanding" regarding goals for the summit.

Analysts and commentators on the Israeli end seem largely pessimistic about the prospects for a breakthrough in 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 the "substantial and difficult issues" standing in the way of a lasting peace agreement, and noted that Rice is 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 Jordan's King Abdullah II in an attempt to shore up lukewarm Arab support for the conference. Skeptical Arab governments have refused to commit to sending high-level representatives to the meeting.

The State Department official said Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia are 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 Israeli-occupied Golan Heights is on the table. Iran's supreme leader, Ali Khameini, has called on Muslim nations to boycott the U.S.-brokered peace conference.

Ashraf Khalil writes for the Los Angeles Times. The New York Times contributed to this article.