debkafile Reports: US Secretary Rice meets first stumbling-blocks in Jerusalem as she begins her Middle East peace shuttle Sunday

She told reporters aboard her flight that she has no expectations of a breakthrough.
And no wonder. She found Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert fighting the backlash among his Kadima and other coalition ministers by stepping away from Vice PM Haim Ramon and his unpopular proposals for meeting Palestinian demands on Jerusalem and refugees.
Olmert told the ministers Sunday he had replaced Ramon with foreign minister Tzipi Livni as head of Israel’s negotiating team. She, along with defense minister Ehud Barak and several other ministers had promised to vote down Ramon’s plans if they were tabled.
Olmert went on to say he did not see the presentation of a joint statement of principles on core issues as a precondition for the Nov. 26 peace conference in Annapolis, Maryland, thereby rejecting this Palestinian demand. He also knocked over another Palestinian sine qua non: a preset timeline for the start and finish of final-status talks.
debkafile reports: A time limit for real progress is also a key feature of Rice’s peace conference plan. In her bid for President George W. Bush’s sponsorship of the conference, she promised him an event that produced a historic success in time for him to bow out of office on a high note.
The US Secretary also dangled a time line for peace negotiations as part of her pitch to overcome the reluctance of Arab rulers to attend the event. She assured them practical solutions on core issues of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict would be exhaustively addressed within a given time frame.
To make good on her pledges, Rice will need to bulldoze the Israeli prime minister into more amenable positions, else the Arab governments – and possibly even the Palestinians – will boycott Annapolis.
Olmert is meanwhile fighting to hold his government together. He is also poaching for support in the constituencies of the right-wing parties Likud, Israel Beitenu and Shas, in case he is forced into an early election. The publication in the coming weeks of the final report by the Lebanon War probe led by Judge Winograd could, for instance, precipitate a national poll.
Fresh from a bruising encounter with Russian leaders in Moscow, Rice has given herself five days of shuttling between Jerusalem, Ramallah, Amman and Cairo, to push Israelis and Palestinians far enough along the road to consensus to give the Annapolis conference a chance.
She started by delivering the Israeli prime minister a scolding before they got together. Answering a question about Israel’s expropriation of land between Jerusalem and Maaleh Adumim, she said: “…we have to be very careful as we are trying to move towards the establishment of a Palestinian state about actions and statements that erode confidence in the parties’ commitment to a two-state solution.”
Barak, who met the visiting US secretary before traveling to Washington for his first visit as defense minister, said that Israel will insist on reserving the right to defend its security in a future Palestinian state. He is also on record as stating any significant West Bank pullouts would require anti-rocket systems first be in place to intercept missiles and rockets deployed by Iran, Syria and Hizballah and fired by Palestinian terrorists.
The minister will meet defense secretary Robert Gates Tuesday and also vice president Dick Cheney and national security adviser Stephen Hadley during his visit.
They will discuss “a range of strategic bilateral issues,” said Israel defense ministry spokesman Ronen Moshe, including missile defense.

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