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Report: U.S. To Keep Pressure On Mideast

President Bush is sending his national security adviser to the Middle East next week to keep up pressure on Israel and the Palestinians to reach agreement on launching formal peace talks, a senior U.S. official said on Thursday.

The announcement came as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said she was encouraged by what she had heard from the two sides during four days of intense talks with Israeli and Palestinian officials and civic and business leaders in Jerusalem and Ramallah in the West Bank.

But there is no date for an international peace conference in the US that was supposed to take place in November because Israel and the Palestinians cannot agree on a joint document on Palestinian statehood, reports CBS News correspondent Robert Berger in Jerusalem. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas wants Israeli concessions on core issues like Jerusalem, refugees and borders and said he won't attend the conference at any price. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert says concessions on those issues would topple his government.

In other developments:

  • Prime Minister Ehud Olmert rushed to Moscow after Russian President Vladimir Putin took a soft position on Iran's nuclear program, reports Berger. During a visit to Tehran, Putin warned outside powers not to attack Iran and said there is no evidence it is developing nuclear weapons. With Iran's president threatening to wipe Israel off the map, Israeli officials have warned that if the world does not stop Iran from getting the atom bomb, Israel will.
  • Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni will visit China to lobby for intensified United Nations sanctions against Iran, officials and news reports said Thursday. At a joint press conference with Rice in Jerusalem on Wednesday, Livni said she hoped a third set of sanctions that is being considered would be tougher and not watered down to gain consensus.
  • (AP)
    A group of about 100 stranded Palestinians (left) protested on the Egyptian border Thursday, demanding to cross into Israel so they could reach their families in the Gaza Strip and other Palestinians territories, police said. "Get us back to our people and sons ... we have spent Ramadan and the Eid away from our people," some banners read, referring to the Muslim holy month celebrations that ended last week. Children led the rally carrying Egyptian flags.

    Rice acknowledged tensions between the two sides as they try to craft a joint statement that will be presented at a U.S.-hosted conference in late November or December at Annapolis, Maryland, where the United States hopes to announce the start of new formal peace negotiations to create a Palestinian state.

    "I think they are very serious," Rice told reporters Thursday as she flew to London for talks with Jordan's King Abdullah. "The teams are serious. The people are serious. The issues are serious. So I am not surprised that there are tensions. I am not surprised that there are some ups and downs.

    "That is the character of this kind of endeavor, but I was encouraged by what I heard," she added.

    "This trip was important to get a sense of where the parties are, to have a chance to see what needs to be done to help them achieve what they're trying to achieve," she also told the reporters aboard her plane.

    National security adviser Stephen Hadley will visit the Middle East next week to follow up on Rice's current round of diplomacy and Rice will return to the region for further discussions with Israelis and Palestinians at the end of the month or in early November, the U.S. official said.

    The trip will also take Rice to an Iraq neighbors meeting in Istanbul, Turkey, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because neither the Hadley trip nor Rice's return visit have been formally announced. The official did not give specific dates for the travel.

    Hadley and Rice will press Israel and the Palestinians to bridge significant gaps on the substance of the conference's joint declaration, which would outline a way for the two sides to return to the negotiating table after seven years of bloodshed and diplomatic paralysis.

    The Palestinians and their Arab allies such as Egypt and Jordan are insisting the document be detailed and specific with a timetable for formal peace talks, and the Israelis want language that is more vague.

    The Palestinians want the document to include at least a sentence or two on how to solve each of the major issues of dispute, such as borders and Jerusalem, which both sides want to claim as their capital.

    The Palestinians' core demand is that the future border between Israel and Palestine be based on the pre-1967 Mideast War lines, with modifications through land swaps. Israel captured the West Bank and other areas in the 1967 war.

    On Wednesday, Rice called the conference a new "moment of opportunity" for the two sides, although she also cautioned that the going would be tough. Her comments came after she met twice with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas over the course of several days.

    While Rice was engaged in diplomacy on the ground, Mr. Bush told reporters in Washington that he was pleased with her progress and promised a staunch U.S. effort to make the conference a success.

    "The reason why there needs to be a vision of what a state could look like is because the Palestinians that have been made promises all these years need to see there's a serious, focused effort to step up a state," the president said.

    He said he is seeking an Arab "buy-in" for a peace deal, something Rice is pressing for on her mission by meeting with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak on Tuesday in Cairo and King Abdullah on Thursday.

    Arab countries, notably U.S. allies Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, have been reluctant to commit to attending the conference unless there are guarantees that it will yield firm results.

    Rice appeared to have won Egypt's backing. After her talks in Cairo, Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit endorsed the conference publicly less than 24 hours after suggesting it be postponed.

    On Wednesday, ahead of Rice's meeting with King Abdullah, a senior Jordanian official echoed the initial Egyptian sentiments, saying the conference should be delayed if more time is deemed necessary.