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Israel's harder line on Gaza complicates U.S. push for talks

Washington wants to bring Israeli, Palestinian, and other Arab leaders together for a mid-November peace summit.

By Ilene R. PrusherStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 21, 2007


US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice Thursday wrapped up another round of shuttle diplomacy in the Bush administration's push to get Israeli, Palestinian, and other Arab leaders to come to a US-sponsored Middle East peace summit later this fall. Her trip promises to be first of many as Washington continues to lay the groundwork for the mid-November conference.

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But the short distances she traveled while here – moving from meetings with Israelis in Jerusalem and Palestinians in Ramallah – belied the growing divide between how each of the sides sees the road ahead.

On Wednesday, Israel declared the Hamas-run Gaza Strip a "hostile entity" and has made an official warning that it may soon turn off gas and electricity to Gaza as a way to respond to the daily rocket-launches from there without rushing into a full-on military campaign.

To many Palestinians this step amounts to collective punishment, and may strengthen the Islamic militants Hamas. Israel's approach of trying to engage Fatah in the West Bank and enfeeble Hamas could add to increased suffering that no Arab politician could tolerate, throwing a wrench in the American plan to have Palestinians and Israelis sitting at the table this fall.

Amid mounting pressure to put together an agenda for the peace conference, potentially with participation from Arab states such as Saudi Arabia, Israelis and Palestinians are holding to very different viewpoints of what needs to be done first – or if a meeting should be held at all.

Palestinian officials say they see no point in participating without specific achievements in place, while Israeli leadership argues that working with generalized principles is a more realistic and safer approach.

Trying to surf the political waves on both sides, Ms. Rice has been attempting to show equal amounts of understanding for each argument.

On her arrival Wednesday, she said at a press conference with Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni that Hamas "is indeed a hostile entity, and a hostile entity to the US, as well." In Ramallah Thursday, she insisted that the US had no intention of bringing the parties together to present a veneer of peace.

"We have many other things to do. We don't need a photo opportunity," Rice told reporters at a joint press conference with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen. "We need a meeting that will advance the cause of the Palestinian state," she said. "That is the only reason to have a meeting."

The who, when, and where of the summit are still undecided, US officials acknowledge. But the all-important list of who is coming rides in large part on the question of what's on the agenda. Saudi officials, as authors of a peace initiative that would offer Arab recognition for Israel if Israel can reach a land-for-peace deal with the Palestinians, have suggested that they might come. Israel is keen to have them, as well as other Arab states that have expressed interest in reconciliation with the Jewish state.