By Griff Witte
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, March 24, 2008
JERUSALEM, March 23 -- Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas told Vice President Cheney on Sunday that the United States needed to do more to back talks mediated by Egypt that are aimed at securing a truce between Israel and Hamas, Palestinian officials said.
Abbas's push for a cease-fire involving the main Palestinian rival to his Fatah party was a recognition that violence in the Hamas-dominated Gaza Strip is blocking progress toward the broader goal of creating a Palestinian state.
The United States has helped facilitate the talks in Egypt, with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice serving earlier this month as a go-between in arranging a temporary truce after an especially bloody exchange. Since then, Gaza has been quieter, although the calm appears tenuous.
Israel has not officially acknowledged taking part in the talks, and both sides say they reserve the right to attack the other at any time.
Abbas asked Cheney to do what he could "to have the Israeli government accept a reciprocal cease-fire," according to Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat.
Mark Regev, spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, said that "everyone understands that Hamas control of Gaza is a problem and that we have to make sure that threat is contained." But he said a cease-fire that allows Hamas to rearm and strengthen itself "is a recipe for much greater problems further down the line."
Hamas, a radical Islamist movement that has declared its intention to destroy Israel, seized control of Gaza from Abbas's government last June. Since then, intensifying rocket fire from the coastal strip into Israel has dampened hopes for a settlement between Israel and the more moderate Palestinian Authority, which still holds sway in the West Bank.
Israeli and Palestinian Authority officials concur that, in practice, any deal would be impossible to enforce as long as Hamas rules Gaza.
On Sunday, Hamas officials reported progress in negotiations aimed at reconciliation with Fatah, the party that dominates the Palestinian Authority, and said talks would continue face-to-face next month. But Erekat denied there had been any real movement and said Hamas must relinquish control of the strip before there can be serious talks.
Cheney, who visited Abbas at his West Bank headquarters, also met with Israeli leaders Sunday, the second day of a three-day visit to the area aimed at building momentum for the peace process that kicked off in Annapolis, Md., last November.
President Bush has called for Israel and the Palestinian Authority to agree on a framework for peace by the time he leaves office in January 2009. On Sunday, Cheney said the United States would continue to work toward the "long-overdue" goal of creating a Palestinian state.
"Achieving that vision will require tremendous effort at the negotiating table and painful concessions on both sides," Cheney said, adding that "it will also require a determination to defeat those who are committed to violence and who refuse to accept the basic right of the other side to exist."
Abbas criticized Israel for not following through on the 2003 "road map" for peace, which called for an end to settlement construction and the dismantling of internal West Bank checkpoints.
"Peace and security can't be achieved through settlement expansion and building barriers," he said.
Israel has said that the settlement construction is needed to accommodate the natural growth of existing settlement populations and that the West Bank barriers cannot be torn down until Abbas and his government do more to improve security in the territory.