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US Secretary of State Heads to Middle East

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is embarking Tuesday on a two-day visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories. As Robert Berger reports from VOA's Jerusalem bureau, she will try to narrow differences on the establishment of a Palestinian state.

Secretary Rice will hold separate talks with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in Jerusalem and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank. They are working on a document on Palestinian statehood that is to be presented at an international peace conference in the United States this fall, probably in November.

Israeli spokesman Mark Regev says the goal is the creation of a Palestinian state.

"And we want to engage with this Palestinian government, and the idea is that we all understand where the peace process is going because we all can see the light at the end of the tunnel," Regev said.

But the gaps remain wide. Israel wants a vague declaration of principles, while President Abbas wants to tackle the core issues of the conflict-including Jerusalem, refugees, and final borders.

"I hope that we can conclude something, to conclude [a] framework for the final status issues," Mr. Abbas said.

Israel believes it is premature to close a deal on those issues, just three months after the Islamic militant group Hamas seized control of the Gaza Strip. Hamas routed the forces of the rival Fatah faction, headed by Mr. Abbas, leaving him as the head of a weakened Palestinian government in the West Bank.

Therefore, Israel fears that Mr. Abbas cannot deliver on a final peace agreement. The Palestinians say if the document does not go beyond vague declarations, the international peace conference will be a failure.