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Rice Calls for Deeper Israeli-Palestinian Talks

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met with Palestinian leaders Thursday on the final day of her Middle East tour aimed at gaining support for a U.S.-sponsored Middle East peace conference later this year. VOA's Jim Teeple reports.

Condoleezza Rice traveled to the West Bank city of Ramallah on Thursday after holding talks with Israeli leaders on Wednesday in a bid to promote President Bush's call for a Middle East peace conference.

Meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and his newly appointed prime minister, Salaam Fayyad, Secretary Rice announced the U.S. will provide Mr. Abbas's Palestinian Authority with $80 million to boost and reform their security forces. U.S. officials traveling with the secretary of state say for now the Palestinians will receive about $10 million of that money. Disbursing the rest they say will require the approval of the U.S. Congress.

At a news conference with President Abbas, Secretary Rice said President Bush wants the upcoming peace conference to support bilateral talks between Israelis and Palestinians aimed at eventually achieving a Palestinian state. She says Mr. Bush is serious about advancing the idea of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

"The president of the United States has no desire to call people together for a photo opportunity," she said. "This is to call people together so that we can really advance Palestinian statehood. Now we have a lot to do between now and the fall, but I am here to consult and have discussions about the meeting, but also to see what we can do advance the bilateral track [between Israelis and Palestinians]."

Secretary Rice says she will probably return to the region before a peace conference takes place. The time and venue for any such conference has yet to be set.

She also says she has received assurances from Israeli leaders that they will discuss substantive issues at the conference. Israeli leaders say while they support holding the conference, "final status issues," such as the return of Palestinian refugees, permanent borders with the Palestinians and the status of Jerusalem should not be part of the agenda. Saudi Arabian officials have said they will consider attending the conference, but only if it deals with such substantive issues, including the dismantling of Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

For his part, Palestinian President Abbas said on Thursday Palestinians will be flexible when it comes to the conference agenda.

Mr. Abbas says he would like to see the so-called "road-map peace plan" that calls for an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and an end to Palestinian violence, serve as a guideline for the upcoming conference. He says specific steps to achieve a Palestinian state can be negotiated at a later date.

Mr. Abbas also rejected any move to reconcile his Fatah movement with the Islamic militant group Hamas. Hamas leaders on Thursday criticized Secretary Rice's visit to Ramallah, saying it was designed to divide Palestinians. In June, Hamas militants soundly defeated Fatah forces loyal to President Abbas in the Gaza Strip, taking over the territory and dividing the Palestinian territories in two. President Abbas on Thursday called the Hamas takeover a great crime, saying it could not be forgiven unless Hamas leaders gave up power in Gaza and apologized for their actions.