US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Tuesday won tempered Egyptian support in her quest to nudge Israelis and Palestinians closer together ahead of a Mideast peace conference to be held in November or December.
Egypt, a key mediator between the Arabs and Israel, has expressed deep skepticism over the conference in past weeks. A day earlier, Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit spoke of postponing it for fear it would fail to bring a real breakthrough in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
But after talks Tuesday with Rice in Cairo, Aboul Gheit promised Egypt's backing for the gathering. Rice "has helped us to understand the American objective. She shed a great deal of light on the current American efforts," he told reporters.
"We feel encouraged regarding what we heard from Secretary Rice and promised her that we would help and we would help the parties as well in order to achieve the objective which is launching the permanent status negotiations that would lead to the establishment of a Palestinian state on both the Palestinian territories," he said.
Rice and Aboul Gheit said the timing of the conference depended on progress in Israeli-Palestinian talks on hammering out an agreement to be sealed at the gathering, expected to be held in Annapolis, Maryland. The Palestinians want the document to address core issues of the peace negotiations, while Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert wants a vaguer statement.
"We will continue to work and help them to create this document and we will then be in a position I think fairly soon to talk about when this meeting ought to take place," Rice said.
Rice was heading later in the day back to Jerusalem for further talks with Olmert.
Still, Aboul Gheit said the conference should be put off if a strong deal is not reached. "We have to go into the meeting ready to launch negotiations. If we need more time to achieve that objective, so be it. If we are short of time, let's extend the time frame," he said. "It can be done if we have enough determination on the part of the (Bush) administration. The secretary says the United States is determined to have a breakthrough in the last year of the administration, so we have to believe them," he said.
Palestinian and Israeli negotiating teams met for a second time on Monday to try to thrash out details of the joint document. "So far, no advances have been made, and we are not deluding ourselves," Palestinian negotiator Yasser Abed Rabbo said Tuesday.