US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice played down expectations for breakthroughs as she opened a critical round of Mideast shuttle diplomacy Sunday and warned Israel against moves that might erode confidence in the process.
As she flew into the region from Russia, Rice said she hoped to help narrow gaps between the Israelis and Palestinians, who are trying to forge an outline of an eventual peace deal in a joint statement to be presented at a US-hosted international conference next month.
But even before her meetings began, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert antagonised the Palestinians by hinting that such an outline wasn't necessary for the conference to go ahead. The Palestinians said that without such a document, they would skip the meeting altogether.
The US has been trying to revive peace efforts since the Islamic militant group Hamas seized control of the Gaza Strip in June. While the Gaza takeover has left Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas controlling just the West Bank, his expulsion of Hamas from government has, in US eyes, freed the moderate leader to pursue a peace deal that would create a Palestinian state.
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, expected to held in Annapolis, Maryland, in late November, 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 aboard her plane.
At the same time, she said she would urge Israel in particular not to do anything that could threaten the meeting, following its renewal of a road plan that Palestinians fear is intended to tighten Israeli control over strategic West Bank areas near Jerusalem. Rice said Israeli clarifications that the project was not imminent and meant to ease Palestinian movement 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," she 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."
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." Speaking to his Cabinet Sunday, Olmert suggested a major difference existed when he hinted Israel did not see a peace deal outline as a crucial element of the meeting.