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Rice: Mideast Talks Must Be "Substantive"

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Thursday an upcoming U.S.-sponsored Mideast conference must be "substantive," and that both sides must draft a document beforehand that lays "foundations for serious negotiations."

The conference "has to be substantive and advance the cause of a Palestinian state," Rice told a joint news conference with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Participants must not "simply meet for the sake of meeting," she said.

Rice is trying to hammer out a joint document on Palestinian statehood in separate talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders, reports CBS News correspondent Robert Berger.

"We want to be as supportive as possible of this bilateral dialogue, so that two states can live side by side in peace and freedom," Rice said.

The Palestinians want the conference, tentatively set for November, to yield an outline for a peace deal, complete with timetable, while Israel wants a vaguer declaration of intent. Key Arab states, such as Saudi Arabia, have said they would only attend if concrete results are achieved.

Abbas told the news conference that he believes some Arab countries are hesitant to confirm their attendance because the objectives are not clear.

"I think many issues need to be clarified and I think it's the duty of the hosts of the conference," he said, referring to the U.S. "When things are clarified, I think the Arab countries, and I'm not ... speaking on their behalf, will attend that conference," he said.

Abbas said he expects the conference to launch serious negotiations with Israel.

"We believe the time is right for the establishment of an independent Palestinian state, with east Jerusalem as its capital, and for living side by side in peace and security with the state of Israel," Abbas said.

Rice met separately Thursday with Abbas and his prime minister, Salam Fayyad, in the West Bank city of Ramallah, and is scheduled to speak with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert again after her meeting with Abbas.

The Palestinians want a specific framework for a peace deal, complete with a timetable, while Israel says it wants a vaguer declaration of intentions.

Rice said the document must "lay foundations for serious negotiations."

In other developments:

  • In her news conference, Rice condemned the bombing in Lebanon that killed an anti-Syrian lawmaker, calling it brutality that is "simply unacceptable" to the international community. In veiled criticism of Syria, Rice said the Lebanese people have the right to hold upcoming elections "without the fear of intimidation, without the fear of foreign interference." A powerful bomb on Wednesday killed Antoine Ghanem, an anti-Syria lawmaker, and six others in a Christian neighborhood of Beirut.
  • Abbas said Thursday he will meet with President Bush during next week's U.N. General Assembly in New York. The two leaders last met at last year's General Assembly.
  • Israeli troops operating against rocket squads in Gaza on Thursday killed a teenager who health officials and witnesses said was hit by shrapnel from a tank shell, then run over by an army bulldozer. It was not immediately clear if he was armed. The Israeli army said it was looking into the reports on the incident, which took place during an Israeli incursion about a mile into central Gaza.
  • Former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu admits that Israel launched an air strike against Syria two weeks ago, reports Berger. It was the first time an Israeli leader admitted the air strike took place, though he would not elaborate. According to foreign reports, Israel attacked a Syrian nuclear facility supplied by North Korea.
  • (AP)
    Waed Munzer (left), 26, a Druse from the village of Ein Qeinya in the Israel-controlled Golan Heights, walked across the Quneitra border crossing Wednesday into Syria to marry her cousin in a rare moment when the heavily guarded Israeli-Syrian border was opened. Reflecting the animosity between the two countries, the bride will not be allowed to go back to Israel. "I'm happy and I'm sad," said Munzer, as her brother ushered her toward the Syrian border. "There'll be no return."

    Rice has said the United States is trying to help both sides reach "common understanding," but she has not said if the U.S.-sponsored peace meeting would address the hardest issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, including the borders of a Palestinian state, a solution for Palestinian refugees and the status of disputed Jerusalem.

    The United States has not said exactly what it wants to achieve from the summit, nor who will attend.

    Israel's designation Wednesday of Gaza as "hostile territory," accompanied by a threat to cut back vital supplies of fuel and electricity, also would be raised, Palestinian spokesman Saeb Erekat said. Abbas denounced the decision as "oppressive" and said it would increase the suffering of Gaza's residents.

    However, Abbas didn't call off peace efforts with Israel in response to the move. And Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's office said the decision still required a legal review, suggesting it could be a means to pressure Gaza militants to halt rocket fire.

    The militant Islamic Jihad group said Thursday it will keep firing rockets at Israel, despite the threat. Abu Ahmed, a spokesman for the militants, said that "rockets are an affirmation of our option of continuing holy war and resistance against the occupation."

    Israel's threat is likely to reinforce perceptions among Palestinians and their Arab backers that Israel will do as it sees fit regardless of the cost to civilians, and that the U.S. will not block Israel's hand.

    Asked to comment on the decision, Rice said: "We will not abandon the innocent Palestinians in Gaza, and indeed will make every effort to deal with their humanitarian needs."

    But she did not criticize the Israeli move, saying, "Hamas is a hostile entity to the United States as well."

    Abbas, too, is in a bitter struggle with Gaza's Hamas rulers, who seized control of the coastal strip in June and forced him to set up a separate government in the West Bank.

    Israel's decision came just hours before Rice's arrival Wednesday for meetings with Olmert and other Israeli leaders as part of the preparations for the fall conference.

    Early Thursday, she held talks with Israeli President Shimon Peres, before heading to Ramallah for the meetings with Abbas and Fayyad.

    Abbas and Olmert have held periodic talks in recent months, and agreed to set up negotiating teams that would try to reach the general outline of a peace deal ahead of the conference.

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