- The Washington Times - Friday, September 21, 2007

RAMALLAH, West Bank — Bush administration officials are committed to work “as hard as we possibly can” for the establishment of a Palestinian state, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said yesterday.

Speaking after a two-hour meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, the secretary said she will work at a U.S.-sponsored Middle East peace conference this fall to lay a “foundation” for the establishment of that Palestinian state.

Israel, meanwhile, signaled new flexibility on the issue of Jerusalem in a letter by Deputy Prime Minister Haim Ramon to a Jerusalem city council member, proposing that Israel cede control over the city’s occupied and annexed eastern sector to the Palestinians.

Miss Rice completed two days of hectic shuttle negotiations with Israeli and Palestinian officials aimed at narrowing at least some differences before the fall conference, tentatively scheduled for mid-November in the United States.

“The issue here is to move the process forward, to a document that will help lay a foundation so there can be serious negotiations on the establishment of a Palestinian state as soon as possible,” she told reporters after emerging from Mr. Abbas’ West Bank office.

Cognizant of skepticism in the Arab world about how much the planned gathering can achieve, Miss Rice and President Bush “are absolutely devoted to working as hard as we possibly can for the establishment of [a Palestinian] state.”

Mr. Ramon, in his letter to a Jerusalem city council member, wrote that, “The Jewish neighborhoods [in Jerusalem] will be recognized as Israeli and under Israeli sovereignty. Accordingly, the Arab neighborhoods … will be recognized as Palestinian,” local media reported.

“There will be special sovereignty over the holy sites, taking into account Israel’s unique interests in overseeing them,” he added, insisting that the Western Wall, the holiest site of Judaism, would remain under Israeli control.

The letter, which sparked an uproar among Israeli hard-liners, was the second major development to alter the landscape for peace talks during Miss Rice’s short visit.

The other was Israel’s Wednesday decision to declare the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip an “enemy entity,” clearing the way to cutting back electricity and fuel supplies in retaliation for rocket attacks from the isolated territory.

“All these measures undermine the efforts exerted by our government to establish security and the rule of law in all Palestinian territories,” Mr. Abbas said yesterday. “We will continue to supply our people in Gaza with all basic supplies.”

Mr. Abbas also objected to Miss Rice’s stated objectives for the November conference, calling them too vague and saying they must be “clarified” if Arab countries are to attend the meeting.

The Palestinian leader, who is scheduled to meet with Mr. Bush in New York next week, did not ask Miss Rice to delay the conference, as some Palestinian officials had suggested earlier.

But, he said, “The situation is ambiguous to the Arab states regarding the international conference. I think many issues need to be clarified, and I think it’s the duty of the hosts of the conference,” he said in reference to the United States.

“When things are clarified, I think the Arab countries, and I’m not speaking on their behalf, will attend the conference.”

Mr. Abbas called for a “framework agreement” with Israel to implement “final-status issues, including borders, Jerusalem, refugees, settlements, water and security.”

Neither Miss Rice nor the Israeli government has been willing to seek such a specific and formal document so far. Instead, they have been talking about “common understandings.”

Whatever form the document takes, it is supposed to be negotiated by the Israelis and the Palestinians in the next several weeks, with help from Miss Rice, who is expected to return to the region early next month.

Mr. Abbas said the Palestinian negotiating team has been chosen, and though he did not name its members, his aides said it will be led by former Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia.

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