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Rice asks focus on core Mideast issues

But the top U.S. envoy ends her visit to the region with a more limited accord by Israel to seek an 'agreement of principles' with Abbas.

August 03, 2007|Richard Boudreaux | Times Staff Writer

RAMALLAH, WEST BANK — Scrambling to shape an agenda for an autumn peace conference, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice pressed Israeli and Palestinian leaders Thursday to start tackling the core issues impeding settlement of their decades-old conflict.

But Israeli officials told Rice that it was too soon to discuss "final status" issues, in part because their negotiating partner, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, had yet to prove capable of stopping attacks on Israel by armed Palestinian groups.

With Israel balking, the best Rice could achieve during her visit to the region this week was an understanding that the parties would first try to reach an "agreement of principles" about the nature of a future Palestinian state.

Rice held two days of meetings in Ramallah and Jerusalem to prepare for an international conference that President Bush has called for the fall. Speaking to reporters here, she urged "a deepening of the dialogue on all issues" that remain.

No date or venue has been set for the gathering, and Rice came to the region pressing for agreements that can be sealed at the peace summit. She said she was likely to visit again before the fall.

"The president of the United States has no desire to call people together for a photo opportunity," Rice told reporters here. "This is to call people together so that we can really advance Palestinian statehood."

The Bush administration has been trying to use Abbas' recent split with the more radical Islamic movement Hamas to press Israel into full-scale peace talks with him. In announcing his initiative last month, Bush said he wanted leaders of moderate Arab states to attend the peace conference and build support for a settlement that would bolster Israel's security in the region.

Visiting Saudi Arabia on Wednesday, Rice heard its foreign minister set a precondition for Saudi attendance: The conference must address "final status" issues that have long frustrated peace negotiators.

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The fate of refugees

Those issues, which Palestinian leaders are eager to settle, include the fate of refugees who fled their homes before or during the Jewish state's 1948 war for independence, competing claims to Jerusalem, the borders of a Palestinian state and the dismantlement of Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

An Israeli government statement said Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who dined with Rice on Wednesday, shared the secretary's hope that the conference "will be serious and meaningful."

But for now, Olmert has indicated no willingness to discuss anything beyond a set of principles defining the character and attributes of a future Palestinian state, its government institutions, economy and customs arrangements with Israel.

Addressing reporters with Rice at her side, Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said Wednesday, "Sometimes it's not wise to put the most sensitive issues first."

Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who also met with Rice, has said he opposes an early Israeli withdrawal of troops and settlers from the West Bank. Israeli media have quoted Barak, a former prime minister, as saying Israel must first develop a system for intercepting short-range rockets that Palestinian militants might fire from the territory, a process that could take years.

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'Renewal of the conflict'

"In these circumstances, talking about peace could create exaggerated expectations on the Palestinian side, whose shattering will lead again to disappointment and the renewal of the conflict," journalist and commentator Aluf Benn wrote in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. "Olmert understands this and is trying to bridge the gap with an agreement of principles ... to gain time and hope things improve."

When Olmert first floated the idea last week of limiting the discussion, Abbas reacted negatively. But Thursday the Palestinian leader told Rice he was willing to work on such an agreement as a first step toward full-scale peace talks, as long as the next steps are spelled out.

"What is important is that we arrive at a result and that we know what that result will be, what is the ceiling that we need to reach and what are the stages of implementation that we can agree on," Abbas said during a news conference with Rice before their meeting here Thursday.

Abbas has emerged as a more credible partner in the eyes of U.S. and Israeli officials since his break in mid-June with Hamas, which advocates Israel's destruction and swept to power in parliamentary elections last year.

Provoked by Hamas' violent ouster of his rival Fatah movement from the Gaza Strip, Abbas fired the power-sharing Palestinian Authority Cabinet led by Hamas. He has appointed a new one headed by Salam Fayyad, a U.S.-trained banker with no political affiliation. For now, its authority and ability to negotiate agreements are limited to the West Bank and challenged by Hamas as unconstitutional.

Rice met Thursday with Fayyad's 15-member Cabinet in a gesture of support and signed an agreement to provide U.S. funding to train the Palestinian Authority's security forces.

A senior State Department official said an initial payment of $10 million is being made now, from about $80 million in security assistance promised by the Bush administration. U.S. and Israeli officials say they hope the aid will help Abbas prevent armed attacks against Israel.

Hamas, which in effect rules Gaza, denounced Rice's display of support for the moderate West Bank leadership.

Rice "is not coming to establish a Palestinian state but to build death squads that will work against resistance groups, including Hamas," said Sami abu Zuhri, a spokesman for the movement.

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boudreaux@latimes.com

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