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Rice Sets February 19 for Three-Way Mideast Talks

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will meet Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority chief Mahmoud Abbas February 19 for what U.S. officials say will be an informal discussion of what a final-status Middle East peace agreement would entail. No venue for the meeting has been announced. VOA's David Gollust reports from the State Department.

Secretary Rice cleared the way for the three-way meeting with a Middle East visit last month, and U.S. officials hope it can be the first in a series of such discussions aimed at generating momentum for a two-state solution to the Middle East conflict.

Israeli Prime Minister Olmert announced the date for the talks in a speech to American Jewish leaders in Jerusalem. State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack confirmed the plans here, but said the modalities including a venue for the meeting are still being worked out.

Rice hopes that the exchange of views on the final status issues, including the borders of a Palestinian state, refugees and Jerusalem, will give new momentum to the peace process and provide the Palestinians, in particular, with a "political horizon," a better idea of what they stand to gain in a negotiated solution of the conflict.

It will be the first discussion of the most sensitive issues at stake in the process since former President Bill Clinton's drive for a peace accord in the final months of his term in office, which ended in 2001.

Briefing reporters, State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack said there could be additional three-way meetings. But he would not say if Rice was striving for a final agreement by the end of the Bush administration, saying she is taking it step-by-step:

"She wants to lay a foundation where the Israelis and Palestinians can come together and resolve all the differences between them, from the most sensitive to those daily issues of irritation to both sides, whether those are checkpoints or other types of issues," he said. "That is her goal, and exactly how that process will look by the time she leaves office as Secretary of State, I can't say."

The spokesman expressed U.S. appreciation for the effort of Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah this week to end the bitter split in Palestinian ranks between Mr. Abbas' Fatah organization and militant Islamic movement Hamas, which has controlled the Palestinian government since elections a year ago.

He said the United States absolutely encourages all responsible parties in the region to try to end intra-Palestinian violence.

But he said any Palestinian unity government that might emerge from the Saudi mediation should be internationally acceptable, based on peacemaking principles laid down by the international Middle East Quartet.

The Quartet, the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations, said in a pivotal policy statement a year ago in London that Hamas should excluded from peace efforts and outside aid unless it recognized Israel's right to exist and renounced violence.

The Quartet, sponsor of the international road map to Middle East peace, reaffirmed that policy in a ministerial-level Washington meeting last week.