Abbas Stays Noncommittal on Peace Talks

By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 5, 2008

RAMALLAH, West Bank, March 4 -- Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas stopped short on Tuesday of agreeing to return to peace talks with Israel, leaving in doubt efforts by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to rekindle a stalled peace initiative.

Abbas, who suspended negotiations in reaction to an Israeli incursion into the Gaza Strip, risks being seen as overly beholden to Israel and the United States if he rushes back into talks. The Israeli offensive, which began last Wednesday, left 126 Palestinians dead and nearly 400 wounded, most of them civilians.

But Abbas's political standing rests in part on his claim that the United States backs him in pursuing peace with Israel, which says it is responding to rocket attacks by Hamas, the armed militant group that controls Gaza. Three Israelis were killed in the violence -- two soldiers and a civilian -- and more than a dozen were wounded. Israel withdrew its ground troops Monday.

Rice, in remarks here and earlier Tuesday in Cairo, sought to pin the blame for the conflict on Hamas, saying that it must end the rocket attacks and that Israel has a right to defend itself as long as it avoids civilian casualties. Hamas is not a party to the peace talks.

"We will work for the resumption of the negotiations as quickly as possible," Rice said.

As Rice stared ahead during a news conference with Abbas after their talks here, the Palestinian leader criticized Israel's response as unjustified "under any pretext."

In response to reporters' questions, Abbas offered confusing answers about whether he would agree to return to the talks, which are central to Rice's goal of achieving a draft peace agreement this year.

Abbas described the peace process, launched last year in Annapolis, Md., as having three pillars: final-status talks; incremental steps on such issues as halting Jewish settlement activity and bolstering Palestinian security; and what he called the situation on the ground. He said it was "important for these three pillars to work in parallel and are implemented as fast as possible" as part of "activating and realizing the objectives of this process."

U.S. officials said that Abbas's statements were clearer in his meeting with Rice and that he indicated talks might start after a reasonable interval. "We are very pleased that there was a firm commitment to the Annapolis process," said State Department spokesman Sean McCormack.

With time running short for reaching a peace deal during the Bush administration's tenure, Rice had long planned to visit the region to push both sides to make progress. But her plans were upended by the sudden Israeli assault, forcing her to spend much of her time on the Gaza crisis during her 32-hour visit to the region.

She arrived first in Cairo, where she met with President Hosni Mubarak and other top officials, then headed to Ramallah for talks with the Palestinians. She had dinner Tuesday with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in Jerusalem and is to continue talks with Israeli officials and Palestinian negotiators Wednesday before flying to Brussels for a NATO meeting.

"We are trying to reach a cease-fire and a period of calm," said Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit, with Rice at his side. "We are trying to persuade the Israelis not to use this excessive force and this disproportionality in the use of force. That must stop."

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