For Rice, High-Stakes Shuttle Diplomacy

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, center, met in Ramallah ahead of a three-way summit with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on Monday.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, center, met in Ramallah ahead of a three-way summit with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on Monday. (By Emilio Morenatti -- AP)
By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 19, 2007

JERUSALEM, Feb. 18 -- Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Sunday shuttled between meetings with Palestinian and Israeli leaders, seeking to lay the groundwork for a successful three-way summit Monday in the face of Israeli anger at a new Palestinian government that includes the militant group Hamas.

Rice made it clear she is staking her reputation as secretary of state on her ability to leverage the talks Monday into a new effort at forging a peace that includes not only the two parties but also Arab neighbors.

"I am committed to this," Rice told a group of U.S. reporters Sunday night. "This takes hard work. It takes patience, it takes perseverance, it takes getting up after a bad day and trying to make a better day. And that's what I am going to do. As long as I am secretary of state, that's what I am going to do. And that's what the president wants me to do."

The talks are officially "informal discussions" on what Rice calls a "political horizon" for a possible Palestinian state. But by all accounts, Rice faces daunting odds.

Both Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas are politically weakened, making it difficult for either side to make tough compromises. Olmert is also feuding openly with his foreign minister, Tzipi Livni; she is also Olmert's chief political rival, making him less interested in backing diplomacy that might enhance her position.

Abbas, meanwhile, recently agreed to have his Fatah political party join a new government dominated by Hamas, which is dedicated to Israel's destruction. Israeli officials, in particular Olmert, have condemned the new government, saying it cannot be a partner in peace.

On Sunday, Olmert spoke of a telephone conversation he had with President Bush on Friday, in which, Olmert said, they agreed to shun the Palestinian government unless it recognizes Israel, renounces violence and commits to previous Israeli-Palestinian agreements. Those principles had been outlined as conditions for recognition by the mediating group known as the Quartet, made up of the United States, the European Union, the United Nations and Russia.

Palestinian officials said that Abbas, in a meeting in the West Bank city of Ramallah, asked Rice to promote the idea of launching regular, exploratory talks on the contours of a Palestinian state. Palestinian officials reported that she favored it but Olmert was skeptical. Olmert and Abbas also have a regular channel for discussing ways to ease conditions for the Palestinians, but Abbas is now seeking a second, low-key venue for regular talks on the formation of a Palestinian state.

Rice declined to say whether she raised the concept when she met later on Sunday with Olmert. "We have to be open to determining how to explore the political horizon," she said. "But I don't want to get ahead of the discussions tomorrow." Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas, who will remain in his post, has said he hopes to assemble the government in the next three weeks and only then would outline the specifics of its policies. But Hamas officials have made clear that the new government will not explicitly recognize Israel, among the Quartet's conditions for restoring economic aid.

Abbas, popularly known as Abu Mazen, assigned Haniyeh last week to form a power-sharing government that "respects" previously signed agreements that recognize Israel. The guideline was set out in the Mecca accord reached this month between Fatah and Hamas.

Rice has walked a careful line in recent days, saying that thus far it appeared the new government would fall short of the Quartet's demands but that no decisions would be made until the Palestinian government was formed. She has also insisted that Abbas cannot be shunned, even though he made the deal with Hamas, because he was independently elected and supports the Quartet's conditions.

Abbas told Rice he made the deal with Hamas primarily to end the street battles that left scores of Palestinians dead, according to Yasser Abed Rabbo, a member of the executive committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization, and Saeb Erekat, a Fatah lawmaker and chief Palestinian negotiator with Israel. "Abu Mazen said he was most interested in stopping the fighting and restoring the rule of law," Erekat said.

Abbas "wants to probe the possibilities of a two-state solution and how to get there," Rabbo said.

Correspondent Scott Wilson contributed to this report.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company