U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice begins a trip to Russia and the Middle East next week that will include five days of shuttling among Israeli and Palestinian officials. She will lay groundwork for the international conference on the Middle East being organized by the Bush administration. VOA's David Gollust reports from the State Department.
Rice has visited the Middle East six times this year. But the five days on the upcoming trip devoted to talks with the Palestinians and Israelis will be most thus far, and it reflects an acceleration of preparations for the international conference.
An announcement Thursday said the Secretary will leave October 11th on a mission that will include two days of security talks in Moscow, the shuttling between Jerusalem and Ramallah in the West Bank, and concluding stops in Jordan and Egypt.
The international conference is intended to give a boost to efforts already begun by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to resume final-status negotiations on the regional conflict after a six year break.
The two leaders, who have held a series of face-to-face meetings in recent weeks, instructed aides on Wednesday to begin work on a joint document that would serve as a basis for negotiations.
Mr. Abbas has called for a framework agreement to be presented to the conference that includes specific details about final-status issues and a time-line for implementation. Prime Minister Olmert has supported only a broader statement of intent without time-lines.
At a news briefing, State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack refused to endorse either concept and said Rice's aim is to help the two leaders advance the process as far as possible.
"Obviously, we're urging them to address all of the issues that are before them -- we all understand exactly what those are -- and to try to work as best they can to push forward in the most constructive way. Not only for the conference but after the conference as well, to make it a useful and constructive meeting that will help propel forward a process that ends up in a two-state solution," he said.
A statement announcing the Rice mission said U.S. officials expect the international meeting to be substantive and serious and deal with the core issues of the regional conflict. Those include the borders of a Palestinian state, the rights of Palestinian refugees, and the future status of Jerusalem.
No date for the meeting has been given but U.S. officials say it will be held in late November or early December, perhaps at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland east of Washington.
They say invitees will include, in addition to the two parties, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations, and key Arab countries including several that do not have diplomatic relations with Israel, such as Syria and Saudi Arabia.
Rice will go to Moscow with Defense Secretary Robert Gates for a joint dialogue October 12 and 13 with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov.
The so-called two-plus-two meeting was scheduled several months ago and will deal with, among other things, the dispute with Moscow over U.S. plans for a regional missile defense system, aimed against Iran, with facilities in Poland and the Czech Republic.