By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 20, 2007
JERUSALEM, Feb. 19 -- Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Monday hosted talks between Israeli and Palestinian leaders on ways to build an independent Palestinian state, but the summit appeared to yield little but a pledge to meet again.
Rice's role was intended to signal her deepening commitment to helping resolve the conflict, but the talks demonstrated the difficulties ahead. Neither Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert nor Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas accompanied Rice when she met with reporters after more than two hours of talks.
The "useful and productive meeting" included discussion of the "diplomatic and political horizon" of creating a Palestinian state, Rice said, reading a statement issued in the name of the three officials. The two leaders requested "American participation and leadership in facilitating efforts to overcome obstacles, rally regional and international support and move forward toward peace," Rice said. "In that vein, I expect to return to the region soon."
Although Rice told reporters traveling with her that the two leaders spent "substantial time" discussing the contours of a Palestinian state, some Palestinian officials said Olmert had dismissed discussions about the future until immediate concerns were addressed, including the fate of an Israeli soldier who is being held prisoner in the Gaza Strip.
In any case, Rice acknowledged that a recent Palestinian unity deal, which will leave the militant Hamas group in power, had scaled back her ambitions.
"You could not have walked into that room and said, 'All right, let's talk about your views of the political and diplomatic horizon' " in the wake of the unity accord, which appears to fall short of international demands to recognize Israel, Rice told reporters. But she said there was "real value" in having the two leaders hash out their differences instead of communicating through the news media or surrogates.
In interviews, Palestinian officials were pessimistic about the prospects for talks. Israeli officials, meanwhile, appeared pleased that pressure that might have been exerted on them by the United States was deferred because of the uncertainty over the new Palestinian government.
A month ago, when the summit was announced, Rice hoped to demonstrate progress on moving toward a Palestinian state, but Abbas upended that ambition by unexpectedly agreeing to allow his moderate Fatah party to join a government led by Hamas, or the Islamic Resistance Movement. Abbas said he made the move to end the street battles between the two factions that had killed scores of Palestinians.
Rice had made several trips to Jerusalem in just over four months, in part to ensure a successful summit. She insisted on going ahead with the meeting despite Israeli misgivings, but the summit appears to have mostly devolved into a ground-level discussion on improving the lives of Palestinians. Senior U.S. officials, who confessed they had been surprised about Abbas's unity accord, generally were tight-lipped about the contents of the talks, except to say it was an opportunity to "clear the air."
In the end, Olmert and Abbas agreed only to hold another bilateral discussion on Palestinian movement and access -- but not on the creation of a separate negotiating track for a Palestinian state.
For the benefit of television cameras, Rice, Abbas and Olmert clasped hands and smiled politely as the meeting began. After about an hour of what Rice described as pro forma discussion of outstanding issues -- including the unity deal -- she moved the meeting up to her hotel suite, with its spectacular views of the Old City.
Palestinian officials said that given the tensions with Israel over the unity deal, the meeting would not have taken place if Rice had not insisted on . Israeli officials have said they would snub the new unity government, though after the meeting Olmert said he would continue to work with Abbas, who is an independently elected president.
The peace process has been nearly moribund for three years, as neither side has fulfilled initial steps outlined in a U.S.-backed peace plan. Rice hopes to jump-start peace talks by sketching what she calls a "political horizon" -- the outlines of a Palestinian state -- so that the Palestinian people will support Abbas in his effort to negotiate an agreement with the Israelis.
In theory, this marked the first time Israeli and Palestinian leaders have discussed the contours of a Palestinian state since the aborted peace talks brokered by President Bill Clinton in his waning days in office six years ago. Officials on all sides had striven to keep expectations low for the talks, saying this was only an informal meeting to help build momentum for a new peace process.
"We try to define it as confidence-building," said Olmert spokeswoman Miri Eisin. "You have to meet somebody and talk to him and see if you have confidence and trust each other and see if there is a sense that you can go forward."