JERUSALEM — U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, engaging in one of her longest forays in Middle East diplomacy this year, said Monday that she's optimistic that Palestinian and Israeli leaders can reach a "serious and substantive" agreement that could be presented to a Middle East peace conference later this fall.
Rice made the comment after a three-hour meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, one of a string of meetings she's holding this week to build support for the conference, which the Bush administration hopes to hold in Annapolis, Md., in late November or early December.
Rice met with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on Sunday and will travel to Egypt Tuesday to meet with President Hosni Mubarak, who could play a central role in bringing skeptical Arab leaders to the fall meeting. She'll then return here for more meetings Wednesday with Olmert and Abbas before traveling to London, where she'll meet with Jordan's King Abdullah on her way back to Washington.
Rice said she was optimistic that she could persuade Palestinian leaders to forgo the detailed proposal they want before agreeing to the fall conference, while convincing reluctant Israelis to offer specific concessions ahead of the proposed meeting.
"A document does not have to be detailed in order to be serious," Rice said. "I think everybody understands that if it is going to address the establishment of a Palestinian state it has to address the core issues."
Rice said she and President Bush plan to work hard in the administration's final year to resolve the conflict.
"I don't know how much dirtier I can get my hands," Rice said in response to a question about how involved she'd be in brokering a deal.
Generating some progress toward an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement is important to the administration's other goals in the region, including bolstering moderate Sunni Arab governments, blunting the appeal of radical Islamic groups such as al Qaida and countering Iran's growing influence.
Rice also met Monday with Avigdor Lieberman, Olmert's conservative minister for strategic affairs. Lieberman is a critical figure because he could try to bring down Israel's coalition government if he feels that Olmert is offering too much to the Palestinians.
One central issue of the talks will be the future of Jerusalem, which both sides claim as their capital. On Monday, Olmert suggested that he's willing to give up Israel's claims to at least some Jerusalem neighborhoods with large Arab populations as part of a peace deal.
"Was it necessary to include Shufat refugee camp, Sawakra, Walaje and other villages and declare that these are Jerusalem?" Olmert said at a public event in the Knesset. "I must confess that it is possible to ask legitimate questions."
Olmert already has generated significant resistance from Israeli opposition leaders, who are adamantly opposed to giving up any part of Jerusalem.
Rice, however, said she believes both sides want to reach an agreement.
"You have parties that want — I really do believe — want to try to make progress here," Rice said. "They want to move this forward, so it's not as if I feel that we are pushing them to do something they don't want to do. It is an issue of helping them find pathways to achieve what it is they want to achieve."
Meanwhile, Israel announced that it had worked out a swap with the Lebanese Islamist group Hezbollah to release a mentally ill detainee and return the bodies of two Hezbollah fighters killed during last year's war with Hezbollah.
In return, Hezbollah returned the body of an Israeli man who is believed to have drowned in the Mediterranean Sea in 2005.
Olmert's office characterized the swap as a "significant step" in negotiations meant to secure the return of Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser, the two Israeli soldiers whose capture by Hezbollah in July 2006 sparked the 34-day war.
(Special correspondent Cliff Churgin contributed to this report from Jerusalem.)
McClatchy Newspapers 2007