Rice sees "reasonable" chance for Mideast peace
(Adds Palestinian officials, paragraphs 13-14)
By Arshad Mohammed
JERUSALEM, Oct 17 (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said on Wednesday a U.S.-led push for Israeli-Palestinian peace had a "reasonable chance of success" as both sides sparred over a planned Middle East conference.
Rice wrapped up four days of shuttle diplomacy with no sign of a breakthrough or an announcement of a final date for the international gathering that Washington sees as the most serious step towards Palestinian statehood in years.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas put Rice on notice that Palestinians could opt out of the conference if talks fail with Israel over a joint document that would address key issues and lead to the revival of negotiations on a peace deal.
"It's impossible to go to the conference at any price," Abbas told reporters. "We told Secretary Rice we don't have much time, that we must make use of every minute."
At a news conference with Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, Rice pledged the meeting, planned for November or December in Annapolis, Maryland, would be substantive and said: "I don't expect anybody to attend at any cost, including us."
Abbas, who lost control of the Gaza Strip to Hamas Islamists in June, is seeking a document that deals in detail with the most divisive issues of its conflict with the Palestinians -- borders and the future of Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees.
Israel wants a broadbrush document and rejects Abbas's call for a timeline for addressing issues and implementing any deal.
"We are at the beginning of a process," Rice said. "If we work hard to resolve these issues, I think we have a reasonable chance of success in moving forward on the vision of two states living side by side in peace and freedom."
Livni, who heads Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's negotiating team, said Israel wanted "to reach understanding on the widest possible common ground in the time available".
Asked about Palestinian accusations the Israeli negotiating team was not serious about the talks, Livni replied: "I am not going to participate in this blame game."
She said Israel was prepared to compromise, but did not say how, adding she hoped the Palestinians would compromise too.
"The idea is not to raise expectations that can lead to frustration and to violence, because we need to learn from past experience," she said. Violence surged after Israeli and Palestinian peace talks broke off in 2000.
A senior Palestinian official, speaking privately, told Reuters that there was "some progress" in talks with Rice and with the Israelis and stressed that the Palestinians accepted that not all details could be resolved in the conference paper.
Another Palestinian source said he believed Rice might be ready to consider some sort of target date for concluding negotiations, as put forward by Abbas, and also that Washington might put forward its own proposals for a compromise if the two sides failed to reach a common position before the conference.
Earlier in the day, Rice toured Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity, lit a candle and voiced hope religion could be a force for reconciliation in the Middle East.
She entered the city through a gate in a towering Israeli wall that Palestinians regard as a hated symbol of occupation. Israel says the barrier it is building in the occupied West Bank stops Palestinian suicide bombers.
"Being here, at the birthplace of my Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ, has been a very special and moving experience," Rice, the daughter and granddaughter of Christian clergymen, told reporters after visiting the church. (Additional reporting by Wafa Amr in Ramallah)
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