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Meeting Rice, Palestinian president agrees to discuss 'declaration of principles' with Israel

But despite the concession, it's unclear how much a US-promoted international conference this fall can accomplish.

By / August 2, 2007

Tel Aviv – Wrapping up her latest tour of the Middle East with a visit to the West Bank Thursday, US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice won a key concession from Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas: a willingness to discuss a "declaration of principles" with Israel at an international conference this fall.

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Until now, the Palestinians have been arguing that a major meeting involving the US, Arab states, and Israel would be a waste of time if it didn't get into meatier issues of refugee returns and the final borders of a Palestinian state. Even with Mr. Abbas's compromise, how much the conference will accomplish is uncertain. The Islamist movement Hamas, which now controls the Gaza Strip and which Israel refuses to deal with, says any final deal will be impossible without its assent.

Israel's influential Haaretz newspaper quotes a senior aide to Ismail Haniyah, the ousted Palestinian prime minister and Hamas leader, as saying progress can't be made without considering the demands of his organization.

"Abbas' talks with the U.S. will continue to be no more than 'photo-ops' for as long as Hamas is not involved in the talks," said [Mr. Haniyah's adviser Ahmed] Yusef.
... Yusef added that any agreement Abbas might eventually sign with Israel will need to be approved either by a national Palestinian referendum, or in a general election. "No such event will take place, unless Hamas authorizes it," he explained. "Hamas is an important regional player and it will continue to be a cardinal player in any sort of political agreement between Israel and the Palestinians."

But Ms. Rice, who said she's likely to be back in the region for this fall's conference, insisted that the US agenda was substantive, reports the Associated Press.

"The president of the United States has no desire to call people together for a photo opportunity. This is to call people together so that we can really advance Palestinian statehood," Rice said.
Abbas, meanwhile, said he's ready to negotiate a declaration of principles as an interim step. Such a declaration, as envisioned by Israel, would outline the contours of a future Palestinian state, without immediately tackling the most explosive issues, such as final borders and the fate of Palestinian refugees.

Reuters reports that Israel still refuses to have anything to do with Hamas, which it considers a terrorist organization. Israeli officials are also reluctant to give more security control to the Fatah forces loyal to Abbas in the West Bank, something the Palestinian president says he needs to bolster his standing with his own people.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told Rice on Wednesday that Hamas Islamists had to be "kept out of the game" while Israel explores new cooperation with the Palestinians.
... "(Olmert and Rice) spoke about future security cooperation with the Palestinians and Israel's concerns ... about transferring security control of various cities and areas, including Israel's condition that it only happen after proper security guarantees have been given," said Israeli government spokesman David Baker. "Those security concerns have not yet been satisfied," said Israeli government spokesman David Baker.

In Rice's meeting with Abbas at his headquarters in Ramallah Thursday, she signed an agreement granting the Palestinians $80 million for reform of their security services.