Palestine’s Abbas says time is running out for Mideast parley

By Arshad Mohammed and Ali Sawafta, Reuters

RAMALLAH, West Bank — Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said on Wednesday time was running out for an agreement with Israel on key issues for a Middle East conference and that Palestinians would not attend at any price.

Abbas made the comments after a second round of talks with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who earlier toured Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity, lit a candle and voiced hope religion could be a force for reconciliation in the Middle East.

“It’s impossible to go to the conference at any price,” Abbas told reporters. “We told Secretary Rice we don’t have much time, that we must make use of every minute.”

Rice came to the region on Sunday to try to bring Israel and the Palestinians closer to agreement on a document that will lay the foundations for the international gathering expected to take place in November or December in Annapolis, Maryland.

Israel wants a broadbrush paper that does not deal in detail with the most divisive issues of its conflict with the Palestinians — borders and the future of Jerusalem and millions of Palestinian refugees.

While both sides have said they see the conference — which the United States initiated after Hamas Islamists took control of the Gaza Strip in June — as a launching point for statehood negotiations, Israel opposes setting any deadlines.

Rice took time out of her official talks to visit Bethlehem, entering through a gate in a towering Israeli wall that Palestinians regard as a hated symbol of occupation. Israel says the barrier it is building in the occupied West Bank stops Palestinian suicide bombers.

Bethlehem residents looked on with seeming indifference as Rice’s motorcade swept into the city with sirens blaring.

“Being here, at the birthplace of my Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ, has been a very special and moving experience,” Rice, the daughter and granddaughter of Christian clergymen, told reporters after visiting the church.

Rice planned to meet Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni later in the day and have dinner with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.