Rice Visit Yields No Commitments On Mideast Talks

By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, September 21, 2007

JERUSALEM, Sept. 20 -- Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Thursday that the U.S.-backed peace conference proposed for later this year must "advance the cause of a Palestinian state" but acknowledged that much work remains to be done before Israeli and Palestinian officials agree on an agenda to achieve that goal.

"The international meeting has to be serious, it has to be substantive," Rice said at a news conference in the West Bank city of Ramallah after meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on the second and final day of her visit. Referring to the Bush administration, Rice said, "We have many things to do. We don't need a photo opportunity."

Rice spent two days with Israeli and Palestinian leaders in an effort to narrow the differences -- some substantive, some technical -- over an agenda for the international peace conference President Bush proposed earlier this year. She departed with neither a firm date for the meeting nor a commitment from the Palestinians to attend unless a detailed agenda, including a specific timetable for the creation of a Palestinian state, can be arranged by negotiating groups that have yet to meet.

After meeting with Abbas, Rice met with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who favors a general agenda for the meeting that would set out what he calls Israel's "intentions" in future negotiations. Although his governing coalition is broad and ideologically diverse, the hawkish parties in his cabinet would probably bolt if Olmert concedes too much on the so-called final status issues, namely the borders of a Palestinian state, the status of Jerusalem and the right claimed by Palestinian refugees to return to homes inside Israel.

But Olmert is highly interested in having influential Arab states such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates -- neither of which has diplomatic relations with the Jewish state -- attend the meeting. He has appealed to leaders of those countries, dominated by Sunni Muslims, to join Israel against what he sees as the shared threat from Shiite Iran. Saudi leaders have said they would not attend unless the kind of detailed agenda urged by Abbas can be reached ahead of time.

David Baker, an Israeli government spokesman, said Rice and Olmert "discussed the need to include moderate Arab states in order to enhance the meeting's chance for success," among other regional issues.

Rice's visit was somewhat overshadowed by the Israeli government decision Wednesday to declare the Gaza Strip, envisioned as a main component of any future Palestinian state, a "hostile entity" because of the near-daily rocket fire into southern Israel. Israeli officials say the designation will allow them to cut fuel and electricity supplies to the strip, whose roughly 1.5 million residents rely on imported food, medicine and energy.

The radical Islamic movement Hamas seized control of Gaza in June after heavy fighting with forces from Abbas's rival Fatah party. Hamas, which won January 2006 parliamentary elections, now runs a parallel administration in Gaza after Abbas dissolved the power-sharing government Hamas had led. Abbas has appointed an emergency government that holds sway in the West Bank.

The Bush administration, which classifies Hamas as a terrorist organization, is pursuing peace talks with Abbas, who said after meeting with Rice that "the time is ripe for the establishment of an independent Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital and for living side by side in security and tranquility with Israel."

Many Israeli and international human rights agencies have called the "hostile entity" designation a violation of international law, and the European Union and U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon have called on the Israeli government to rescind the order. Israel withdrew from Gaza in the fall of 2005 after a nearly four-decade presence there.

But Rice signaled the Bush administration's support for the decision. Palestinian officials said Abbas made clear Thursday that he did not support the declaration, which they said further divides the Palestinian territories and punishes the civilian population of Gaza.

"The declaration is counterproductive," said Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator. "We explained our position to Dr. Rice -- that Gaza is under occupation and so is the West Bank."

Ismail Haniyeh, the deposed Hamas prime minister, met Thursday with several armed groups in Gaza to persuade them to cease firing the crude rockets known as Qassams into Israel. Although no rockets hit Israel on Thursday, Haniyeh failed to win a promise to stop from Islamic Jihad, the group primarily responsible for the attacks.

A relatively small number of Israeli armored vehicles, including bulldozers, rolled roughly a mile into central Gaza on Thursday in what Israeli military officials said was a move against rocket-launching areas and smuggling tunnels. Palestinian health officials said four Palestinians were killed in the operation, which occurred near the Bureij refugee camp.

Among them was Mahmoud al-Kufafi, 17, who died after being hit by shrapnel and then run over by an Israeli bulldozer. It was unclear what killed him or whether he was armed.

Three men from the extended Abu Hujair family -- ages 17, 22 and 33 -- were also killed in the fighting. At least one of them was identified as a member of Hamas's military wing, the Izzedine al-Qassam Brigades.

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