Rice to Israel and West Bank on peace mission

( Reuters ) - U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice began a 24-hour visit to Israel and the West Bank on Wednesday carrying a Saudi pledge of support for a Middle East peace conference proposed by Washington.

In talks in the region, Rice will try to inject new momentum into peacemaking between Israel and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's West Bank government following the violent takeover of the Gaza Strip by Hamas Islamists in June.

"We want to see the political horizon can be given some extra definition in the coming weeks," a senior U.S. State Department official said, using Washington's term for showing Palestinians their hopes for statehood remain alive.

Rice flew to Tel Aviv from Saudi Arabia, where Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal said Riyadh welcomed U.S. President George W. Bush's initiative to hold a Middle East peace conference later this year. No date or venue has been set.

After arriving in Tel Aviv, she travelled to Jerusalem.

"There is an international movement (for peace) ... Israel should respond to these pressures," Faisal said, without promising that Saudi Arabia would attend the conference.

With Washington keen to show progress in the Middle East despite crisis in Iraq, Rice may press Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to respond to Saudi support for the meeting by taking more steps to revive talks on Palestinian statehood.

Diplomats and Israeli officials said the United States wants Israel to expand the scope of Olmert's discussions with Abbas by pushing forward on core issues like borders.

Olmert's office said he hoped many Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia, would attend the international gathering. "This meeting can grant an umbrella for the bilateral talks between Israel and the Palestinians," a statement from his office said.

Echoing the Israeli leader, the U.S. official said bilateral dialogue was essential: "Without it nothing is going to move."

But it was unclear how far Olmert, who meets Rice later in the day, was prepared to go to help bolster Abbas, a leader Israeli officials have long described as weak and incapable of delivering security and peace.

Rice will hold talks with Abbas, head of the secular Fatah faction, on Thursday in the West Bank city of Ramallah.

Israeli officials said Olmert was prepared to discuss borders and other core issues in "general terms" that could lead to an "agreement of principles" for establishing a Palestinian state.

But Olmert has not agreed to full-fledged negotiations over the three main final status issues -- borders, the status of Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees -- as proposed by Abbas.

Israeli officials said any commitment now could raise expectations and lead to further violence if talks broke down.

Abbas aide Saeb Erekat said final-status issues should be negotiated as a package.

Olmert and Abbas are expected to meet next week, most likely in the West Bank city of Jericho.

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