Rice urged to set Mideast peace timetables
( AP ) - Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice should hand timetables to Israel and the Palestinians for meeting their short-term peace obligations to boost trust ahead of a U.S.-hosted Mideast conference, a senior Palestinian negotiator said Monday.
Obligations - such as an Israeli settlement freeze and a Palestinian arms roundup - are spelled out in the first phase of the three-phase "road map" peace plan. The plan was dormant for four years but has been revived ahead of the conference, to be held in Annapolis, Md., in late November or early December.
The meeting is meant as a springboard for relaunching formal peace negotiations, which broke down amid violence seven years ago.
Palestinian leaders, frustrated with what they consider Israeli foot-dragging, will raise the demand for timetables in talks with Rice later Monday.
"It seems that the Israelis haven't read their obligations," said the negotiator, Saeb Erekat, adding that he believes the Palestinians have made progress in carrying out their requirements.
Rice is in the region to check on progress in preparing for the conference. Israeli and Palestinian negotiators have been trying to write a joint document that would serve as a blueprint for resolving their conflict, whose main issues include borders, Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees.
Both sides acknowledged publicly on Sunday that they're facing difficulties.
On Monday, Rice met in Ramallah with lead Palestinian peace negotiator Ahmed Qureia and Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad before arriving at the headquarters of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas for her last meeting on this trip. She met with Israeli leaders on Sunday.
In a speech Sunday, Rice warned that if the conference fails to produce progress toward setting up a Palestinian state, Muslim extremists would increase their influence.
"If we do not act now to show the Palestinians a way forward, others will show them a way forward," she said.
Rice told a gathering of scholars, leaders and former negotiators that both sides must take advantage of the current opportunity for peace talks.
"Palestinians have waited too long for the dignity that will come with an independent state," she said. "We have all waited too long for peace."
The Palestinians have asked for setting a deadline for a peace deal, pointing to more than a decade of failed efforts, but Israel has rejected the idea. Instead, Israel says assurances of its determination should be enough.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told Sunday's gathering that he believes "real accomplishments" are possible in the remaining year of President Bush's term.
"There is no intention of dragging the negotiations on endlessly. There is no reason to suffer the same foot-dragging which previously characterized our discussions," he said.
Erekat said Rice would be asked to give deadlines to both sides for meeting short-term obligations, and to judge progress.
Under the road map plan, Israel is required to freeze settlement expansion, dismantle dozens of illegal settlement outposts, halt its frequent army raids into West Bank towns and reopen Palestinian institutions in Jerusalem. The Palestinians have to disarm militants, collect illegal weapons and reform their security forces.
Israel has promised for years to dismantle some two dozen of the roughly 120 outposts settlers have put up since the early 1990s, but so far has taken down only a few houses. For months it has promised to ease movement in the West Bank, but no serious steps have been taken.
Israel has argued that Palestinians haven't done enough to rein in militants who attack Israeli targets.
" Israel is currently involved in a process with the Palestinians with the purpose of achieving the most progress possible in the most expedient manner," said David Baker, an Israeli government spokesman, when asked about the demand for a timetable.
The Israeli daily Yediot Ahronot said Rice has told Olmert and Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak that she expects Israel to dismantle at least two outposts before the conference. Washington also wants Israel to remove some of the roadblocks that hamper movement of Palestinian people and goods in the West Bank before the meeting, the newspaper said.
Meanwhile, Olmert is considering a Palestinian request that he release some 2,000 of the 12,000 Palestinian prisoners Israel holds before the Annapolis summit.
Fayyad told The Associated Press in a weekend interview that it is time for Israel to make bold moves to reassure the Palestinian people it is serious about peace negotiations. Freeing 2,000 prisoners ahead of the conference would help to boost trust, Fayyad said.
Yediot said Israel would, among others, free several prisoners jailed for planning or carrying out attacks on Israelis. In the past, Israel has been reluctant to free such prisoners, but Yediot reported that the prisoners in question have already served dozens of years in jail.
Baker said that " Israel received a request to release Palestinian prisoners and is considering it."
Israel, which conducts nightly arrest raids in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, has released about 340 Palestinian prisoners in recent months.