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Rice Says Mideast Conference Will Launch Drive for Palestinian Statehood


Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Wednesday she sees next week's Annapolis conference as the launch of a drive to conclude a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict before the end of President Bush's term in early 2009. Nearly 50 countries and international organizations have been invited to the meeting next Tuesday near Washington. VOA's David Gollust reports from the State Department.

Rice says it was decided in pre-conference diplomacy not to try to resolve major elements of a peace deal at the Annapolis meeting itself, but rather let it serve as the launch of final-status Israeli-Palestinian negotiations after a seven year freeze.

In a talk with State Department reporters following Tuesday's formal announcement of the long-awaited conference, Rice said she has cautious hopes a final agreement can be achieved by the time President Bush leaves office.

"The parties have said they are going to make efforts to conclude it in this President's term, and you know, it's no secret that means about a year. It's one thing about the American system: we know how long the President is going to be in office. So that's what we'll try and do. Nobody can guarantee that. All you can do is make your best effort," she said.

In contrast to previous U.S. diplomatic efforts that focused on the central parties to the Middle East dispute, the Bush administration has asked nearly 50 countries and international organizations to take part in the conference along with Israel and the Palestinians.

Key Arab countries that do not have diplomatic relations with Israel have been invited and are expected to attend, notably including Saudi Arabia and Syria. But the radical Palestinian movement Hamas, which controls the Gaza strip and rejects dialogue with Israel, will not be at the conference.

Rice stressed that in his dual role as Palestine Liberation Organization chief, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is empowered to negotiate for all Palestinians including Hamas and that the statehood process set in motion by the Annapolis meeting will strengthen Palestinian moderates.

"It isn't the first time in either international politics or human history that a government, a legitimate government has not controlled all its territory. But I think that the moderate forces, the forces that believe in a two-state solution - born of negotiation not violence - are going to be in a stronger position to stake that claim when it is clear that there really is the prospect of a Palestinian state," she said.

Rice said she is hoping for a big turnout of foreign ministers from Arab and key majority-Muslim countries at Annapolis -- both to strengthen the political standing of Mr. Abbas, and to reassure Israel that making peace with the Palestinians will open the way to an end to the broader conflict with the Arab world.

Decisions on Arab participation are expected to be made at a special meeting of the Arab League later this week in Cairo. President Bush is personally leading the U.S. effort to generate support for the meeting, speaking by telephone Wednesday with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak as well as President Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

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