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In Mideast, Rice says not to expect breakthrough on preparations for peace conference

JERUSALEM — Opening an intense round of Mideast shuttle diplomacy, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Sunday played down expectations her mission would finalize preparations for a U.S.-hosted peace conference next month.

Rice began a four-day visit to the region with a rare warning to Israel not to take any steps that might erode confidence in the peace process.

She met for more than two hours with Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, saw Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and planned to have dinner with Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.

Her hope is to narrow differences between the two sides as they seek to forge an outline of an eventual peace deal and produce a joint statement to be presented at the conference expected to held in Annapolis, Md., in late November.

Even before his talks with Rice, Olmert antagonized the Palestinians by hinting that such an outline was not necessary. The Palestinians countered that without such a document, they would skip the meeting.

On her flight from Russia, Rice said she did not believe her visit would produce the joint Israel-Palestinian statement or bring it to a point where invitations for the conference could be issued.

"I don't expect out of these meetings that there will be any particular outcome in the sense of breakthroughs on the document," she told reporters on her plane.

At the same time, she urged Israel not to do anything that could threaten the conference. The warning came after Israel's renewal of a road plan that Palestinians fear is intended to tighten Israeli control over strategic West Bank areas near Jerusalem.

Israel says the project is not imminent and is meant to ease Palestinian movement. But those assertions did little to ease concerns.

"We have to be very careful as we are trying to move toward the establishment of a Palestinian state of actions and statements that erode confidence in the parties' commitment to a two-state solution," Rice said.

"Even if the intentions are good and even if the actual events on the ground are intended to produce a certain kind of outcome, this is a very delicate time," Rice said. "It's just a time to be extremely careful."

The U.S. has tried to revive peace efforts since the Islamic militant group Hamas seized control of the Gaza Strip in June.

That takeover has left Mahmoud Abbas, the moderate Palestinian president, in control of just the West Bank. His expulsion of Hamas from the government has, in U.S. eyes, freed him to pursue a peace deal that would create a Palestinian state.

Rice said she would shuttle between Israel and the West Bank over the next three days to "help them narrow differences that they may have about what the nature of this document has to be."

To build Arab support for the U.S. conference, Rice planned stops in Egypt on Tuesday and London on Thursday, where she will see King Abdullah of Jordan.

At a Cabinet meeting Sunday, Olmert hinted that Israel did not see a peace deal outline as a crucial element of the conference.

The goal, Olmert said, "is to arrive at a joint statement during the international conference, even though the existence of such a statement was never a condition for holding this conference," he said.

The Palestinians' foreign minister, Riad Malki, said the Palestinians would not allow Olmert to use the conference as a public relations stunt.

"Without a document to resolve this conflict, we can't go to the conference next month," he said. "Olmert is looking for a public relations conference and one that will allow normalization with Arab countries. We will not help him in this."

An important measure of the success of the conference will be how far the sides move beforehand toward resolving critical areas of dispute. These include final borders, sovereignty over disputed Jerusalem and a solution for Palestinian refugees — "final status" issues.

So far, the two sides are at odds over how detailed that framework should be; both say no written agreement has been forged on any of those issues.

Israel is pressing for a vaguely worded document that would give it more room to maneuver. The Palestinians want a detailed preliminary agreement with a timetable for creating a Palestinian state.

Rice said she would be looking for "clarity on where the parties see themselves in the negotiations on their bilateral statement" that she said should at least touch on those final status issues.

"I do think it's important that they address the core issues in some fashion," she said. "I also think it's important that the document be substantive enough that it points that there is a way forward toward the establishment of a Palestinian state."

Rice, on her third visit to the region since the Hamas takeover in Gaza, would not rule out presenting suggestions for the two sides to consider.

In recent days, Palestinian officials have said an agreement is nearer than ever, and that swapping Israeli territory for West Bank land could solve the issue of Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

Olmert has said the time has come to stop letting excuses get in the way of peacemaking, and a top ally has been publicly discussing a subject that was long taboo — sharing sovereignty in Jerusalem.

Still, the road project and the two sides' disagreements on the refugee issue are clouding prospects for success.