By Michael Abramowitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 16, 2007
RAMALLAH, West Bank, Oct. 15 -- Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice pressed Israelis and Palestinians on Monday to compromise on a plan to jump-start peace negotiations, describing the ending of their long conflict as one of the top goals of President Bush in the 15 months he has left in office.
A day after meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Rice traveled here to meet with Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, who urged Rice to lean on Israel to address a variety of grievances and lay out a detailed plan to resolve the status of Palestinian refugees, the future of Jerusalem and other elements of the conflict.
When she emerged for a joint news conference after meeting with Abbas for nearly three hours, Rice reiterated her past admonition that both parties should avoid steps that "undermine confidence." But she voiced confidence that the international peace conference Bush has called for this fall would be both serious and substantive.
"Frankly, we have better things to do than invite people to Annapolis for a photo op," Rice said, officially confirming for the first time the badly kept secret that the conference is to be held in Maryland. "I hope you understand," she added, "that the president has decided to make this one of the highest priorities of his administration and of his time in office. It means that he is absolutely serious about moving this issue forward and moving it as rapidly as possible to conclusion."
Rice arrived this week facing deep skepticism among Arabs and Israelis about such lofty statements, especially given what many here regard as the administration's past disengagement from the issue -- a position Rice flatly rejected today. With great interest by both sides in her visit, Rice and senior American officials are trying to tamp down expectations about what can be accomplished in the near term, nervous that a conspicuous failure to pull off the peace conference could spark new violence in the Palestinian territories or have other unforeseen consequences.
"Maybe the expectations are a little high right now, and the politicians on both sides are concerned about how to manage that," said one senior American official, who was not authorized to speak for attribution.
Rice is trying to nudge the Israelis and Palestinians into agreeing on a yet-undefined document that could help launch the peace conference -- perhaps followed by final negotiations.
The Palestinian side wants the document to be as detailed as possible, in part to give hope to its population that a solution may be near; the Israelis are trying to make the document as vague as possible and are nervous that the political ground has not yet been laid for some of the difficult compromises that might be necessary.
Rice is spending an unusually long time this week in the Middle East, shuttling between meetings with Israeli and Palestinian leaders while sprinkling in meetings with religious and civic figures in both societies -- an effort, as she put it, to broaden understanding of American aims here. She is to travel to Egypt on Tuesday to meet with President Hosni Mubarak, plans to visit Bethlehem on Wednesday, then will fly to London on Thursday for a meeting with Jordan's King Abdullah II.
At the news conference Monday, and in other conversations with journalists, Rice has steered clear of many details of the private discussions but said she is pushing both sides to make compromises. "It's not as if we are pushing them to do something they don't want to do," she said, adding that both Abbas and Olmert "are developing a sense of confidence between themselves."
The meeting in Ramallah took place in the ramshackle compound where Yasser Arafat, the longtime Palestinian leader, spent his final days and is now buried. Rice was greeted warmly by Abbas, who made clear he expects her to pressure Israel on various issues -- such as halting settlements in the occupied territories and ending an archaeological dig in Jerusalem that Muslims have complained is too near a holy site.
Abbas also called for "a real political horizon that will bring assurances to the people and launches a genuine and credible peace process."