By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 16, 2007
LUXOR, Egypt, Jan. 15 -- Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice announced Monday that Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas would meet with her for a three-way informal discussion of issues that must be cleared away to establish a Palestinian state.
No date or location has been set for the gathering, but it would signal deepening involvement by the Bush administration in stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace talks at a time when Rice is seeking greater support from Arab leaders in helping to stabilize Iraq.
Rice made her statement after meeting with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak at this ancient city on the Nile. Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit, addressing reporters with Rice, said Egypt supported President Bush's new plan for Iraq.
Rice said she was going "to try to help the parties come together, to look at how they can move through the road map," referring to the U.S.-backed peace plan that was launched, without success, in 2003. In order to establish a Palestinian state, she said, "there are a number of issues -- some old, some new -- that will ultimately need to be resolved."
The road map set out detailed sequential steps that would lead first to an interim state and then a permanent one. But the Israelis and the Palestinians have never managed to get past the first phase, which among other things required the Palestinian government to crack down on anti-Israeli radical groups and Israel to freeze expansion of Jewish settlements in the Palestinian territories.
The road map envisioned fulfilling the first stage before addressing such vexing issues as the precise borders of a future Palestinian state, the status of Jerusalem, and the claim of Palestinian refugees and their descendants of a right to return to homes in Israel that were abandoned in 1948.
The process was further frozen when the radical Islamic group Hamas, which is devoted to the destruction of Israel, last year won legislative elections in the Palestinian territories. Meanwhile, Israel has not met its obligations. On the same day the meeting was announced, Israel's Housing Ministry solicited bids to build 44 housing units in the West Bank settlement of Maale Adumim, which Olmert has declared would be part of Israel under any final deal.
Now, in a shift for the Bush administration, Rice is calculating that dialogue on the end result -- what she calls the "political horizon" -- might loosen the logjam, aides said.
Bush took office in 2001 critical of the intense engagement in the peace process by his predecessor, Bill Clinton, including sketching the final borders of a Palestinian state. Bush's aides suggested that the collapse of Clinton's involvement led to the outbreak of violence known as the second intifada.
"The parties haven't talked about these issues for a long time. It's been at least six years since they talked about these issues," Rice said, referring to Clinton's efforts. "It seems wise to begin this, as what President Abbas has called an informal discussion, to just really sit and talk about the issues."
Bush is already on record on two key issues. To the fury of Arabs, he gave a letter in 2004 to Ariel Sharon, then Israeli prime minister, saying that Palestinian refugees could not expect to return to Israel and that Israel would be expected to retain major settlement blocks in the West Bank.
Israeli and Palestinian officials confirmed the planned meeting, which officials said is likely to be held next month. The deal came about after Rice shuttled between Jerusalem, the Jordanian capital of Amman and Abbas's West Bank headquarters in Ramallah on Sunday and then secured Olmert's agreement Monday morning for the meeting. After talks with Egyptian officials here, she flew to Riyadh for dinner with Saudi King Abdullah.
Rice hopes to use the prospect of renewed U.S. involvement in the Middle East peace process to help win Arab support for the Iraqi government and a campaign to combat the rising influence of Iran. She is to meet with Persian Gulf foreign ministers in Kuwait City on Tuesday.
Both Olmert and Abbas are politically weakened, making prospects slim for the success of their talks. Olmert's approval rating is 14 percent, and Abbas is struggling against the Hamas-led government.
Fawzi Barhoum, a Hamas spokesman, said the planned meeting was "against our Palestinian unity."
"Up to now we have heard nothing about our rights or about breaking the international siege against our Palestinian government," Barhoum said, referring to the international aid embargo imposed on the Palestinian Authority after Hamas unexpectedly won the parliamentary elections. "We do not support this meeting."
Miri Eisin, a spokeswoman for Olmert, described the talks as part of the "pre-negotiation stage" in which issues of substance would not be discussed. "What we're doing is trying to get to a point where each side trusts the other," she said, adding that some of the discussion with Rice will be aimed at determining a role for the United States, as well as for moderate Arab states such as Jordan, in any future negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.
Rice's presence at the meeting would mark the first time in four years that the Bush administration has intervened so directly in the long-running conflict. In June 2003, the road map was launched with great fanfare at a summit in Aqaba, Jordan, attended by Bush, Sharon and Abbas, at the time the Palestinian prime minister.
But the Americans quickly found themselves dragged into a tedious discussion about highway checkpoints, settlement construction and prisoner exchanges. The process collapsed a few months later when Abbas quit in a dispute with then-Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
In their first one-on-one meeting, Olmert last month promised Abbas that he would remove some military checkpoints in the West Bank and release $100 million of the more than $500 million in frozen tax revenue that Israel collects on behalf of the Palestinians. But Olmert, who has pledged to strengthen Abbas's political standing as he confronts Hamas, has yet to release the promised funds. And there has been virtually no progress in reducing the Israeli obstacles to Palestinian movement inside the West Bank.
Rice said that Olmert and Abbas were developing a "fruitful channel bilaterally" for such issues and that it was not her intention to insert "an American presence" at every meeting between the two men.
Correspondent Scott Wilson in Jerusalem contributed to this report.