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Rice meets harder lines in push for Israeli-Palestinian peace

In the West Bank Tuesday, Secretary Rice urged Israelis and Palestinians to return to the negotiating table.

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The different stresses in the messages of Mr. Aboul Gheit and Rice only served to underscore the challenges of trying to lure Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiating table when both peoples feel under siege.

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As more rockets fell on Sderot, in southern Israel, Tuesday, one of them making a direct hit on a home whose inhabitants were out at the time, there seemed to be little enthusiasm among Israelis for negotiations and more interest in discussing war strategy.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak is floating a plan to force residents of the northern end of Gaza to move south, out of their homes, allowing the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) to declare the region - regularly used by Palestinian militants as a launchpad for sending rockets into Israel - a closed military war zone. And Palestinians also showed a dwindling amount of support for peace talks with Israel. Two Palestinians were killed in Israelis airstrikes in Gaza Tuesday. Moreover, even leaders in the Fatah Party – ostensibly the supporters of Abbas – tried to step in on his decision-making powers and said he shouldn't rush back to peace talks with Israel.

"Nobody in Fatah is happy with the negotiations or the way they are conducted. We have voiced our criticism to [Abbas], and the one thing we are happy with is that he suspended the negotiations," says Jihad Abu Znaid, a Fatah member of the Palestinian Legislative Council from East Jerusalem.

"But we made an international commitment to the peace process, and to dismantle this now means the dismantlement of the Palestinian Authority, which Abbas cannot afford at this point," says Ms. Abu Znaid.

"Unfortunately, Rice's comments in Egypt are very discouraging to us," she adds. "They only indicate that we are heading into a vicious cycle of violence, demands and more negotiations, all of which are unfruitful and unpromising. What we heard from Rice only expresses American demands on the Palestinian Authority to reengage in negotiations in the context of aggressive Israeli measures in the West Bank and Gaza."

Abu Znaid is one of many members of the PLC, the Palestinian parliament, who are upset over the lack of any role in peace talks.

The legislators, who are infrequently able to pull together an official council meeting – many of the elected members from Hamas are in Israeli jails, and the West Bank and Gaza Strip are increasingly cut off from each other – are trying to set up an oversight committee that would allow them to review and reject decisions made by Abbas in negotiations with Israel. Although it isn't clear that they will be able to pull this off, the move itself represents another challenge.

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