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Rice Promises 'Substantive' Mideast Conference

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice says there is a consensus among potential participants that the conference on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict she is to host this autumn must be substantive. Returning Thursday from a four-day Middle East mission, Rice said she expects to make several more trips to the region to lay groundwork for the meeting. VOA's David Gollust reports from Shannon, Ireland, where the secretary made a refuling stop on the way to Washington.

Rice acknowledges that a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will be hard to achieve in the 17 months remaining in the Bush administration.

But she is promising intensive U.S. efforts to spur the peace process, including multiple trips to the region to lay groundwork for the conference, proposed by President Bush in his Middle East policy statement July 16.

The issue dominated Rice's meetings this week with U.S. Arab allies in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and with top Israeli and Palestinian officials in Jerusalem and Ramallah. She achieved a potential breakthrough in Jeddah when Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Price Saud al-Faisal said his government would seriously consider attending, if the meeting was substantive.

In a talk with reporters enroute back to Washington, Rice said both Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas told her they are ready for a dialogue on the fundamental issues of the conflict, and that all those with whom she conferred with this week said they want the meeting to be substantive.

"What I did hear was a common view," she said. "And that common view was: nobody wants to show up for a photo-op. The president of the United States doesn't want a photo-op. Our Arab allies don't want one and the Israelis don't want one. Everybody wants this to be a meaningful substantive conference which by its very nature I think can stimulate, before it happens, the bilateral track to move toward it."

Bush administration officials have high hopes that the qualified endorsement of the proposed conference by Saudi Arabia will spur similar moves by other Gulf allies of the United States, which do not have diplomatic relations with Israel.

Rice said that it will be difficult for both the Palestinians and Israel to make the hard choices for peace unless there is political support from the broader Arab world.

"There will have to be support from the Arab states for what they're doing," she added. "And I'm confident from what I've heard that the Arab states very much want to see a resolution of this, and that they understand that they've got responsibilities to help bring about that resolution. I've said before that I think in past times one of the things that we've learned through the myriad efforts to resolve this problem is that without support of the Arab states in the region - the key Arab states - it's going to be difficult for the Palestinians and the Israelis to come to a reasonable agreement."

Bush administration officials reject the widely-held view that the capture of Gaza by the militant Hamas movement will prevent progress in peacemaking. They say the new Palestinian government of Prime Minister Salam Fayyad that excludes Hamas may be the most favorably-inclined to negotiations with Israel since partial self-rule began in 1994.

Rice pointedly met with Mr. Fayyad and all 14 of his cabinet ministers in Ramallah Thursday before having talks with Palestinian Authority President Abbas, and signed an agreement with Abbas to resume provision of non-lethal U.S. aid to Palestinian security forces.

The Bush administration first proposed the $80 million dollar program last year, but it barely got off the ground before it stalled, amid U.S. Congressional concern about the now defunct Palestinian unity government of the mainstream Fatah party and Hamas.

Hamas criticized Rice's mission, with a spokesman in Gaza saying she came to the region not to promote Palestinian statehood, but to deepen divisions among Palestinians and support Israeli occupation.