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.

Thaer Ganaim/Reuters
Talks: Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (r.) met with US Secretary of State Rice Tuesday in Ramallah.
Ronen Zvulun
Violent exchange: A rocket fired from the Gaza Strip Tuesday hit this house in the southern Israeli city of Sderot. Israel's air force retaliated for the strike, killing two Palestinians, one said to be a Gazan rocket squad member.

Condoleezza Rice arrived here Tuesday for her 16th visit since becoming America's chief diplomat, this time stressing that the United States has not given up on an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal by year's end.

But since Israeli and Palestinian leaders agreed last November to start talks that could lead to a two-state solution, Ms. Rice's job has grown harder by the day. Both sides are heading toward harder-line positions as violence has spiraled recently in Gaza and southern Israel. And so, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas face domestic pressure to guard their people and move slowly toward any agreement.

In Ramallah, after meeting Mr. Abbas, Rice expressed some frustration over the new developments hampering the US peace push. "We have in fact launched a framework, that if the obligations are actually met, it will lead to a point where finally, finally the parties can reach a resolution to their conflict." Asked what it would take to bring the Palestinians back to the negotiating table, Abbas said there would have to be palpable changes for Palestinians.

"If we have implementation of the road map and a change in facts on the ground, then the negotiations can proceed," he said. "In the midst of aggression, where 120 Palestinians have passed away, including 20 children, the negotiations were suspended as a realistic measure and response to this hostile environment. I call upon on all sides to engage in a cease-fire in preparation for a solid peace process that will lead to a state by the end of 2008."

Rice arrived here after talks in Cairo, during which she worked to bring the Egyptian leadership back into the peace-brokering role it has frequently played when the Israeli-Palestinian process hit rough waters. Any road to a cease-fire seems to run through Cairo, in large part because none of the other parties involved – neither the US, the Fatah-run Palestinian Authority (PA), nor Israel – is on speaking terms with Hamas, which seized control of the Gaza Strip last summer.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit told reporters there were ongoing efforts to reach "a cease-fire and a period of calm," adding that Israel must stop using "excessive force" in Gaza.

Rice emphasized a different point of view, saying that Hamas must end its rocket attacks on Israel. She also said that while Israel has a right to defend itself, it should take care to avoid harming innocent civilians and avoid further suffering.

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.

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.

If Abbas appears keen to meet the US and Israeli proposal for resuming talks, which the Palestinians announced they were breaking off over the weekend following a series of deadly Israeli airstrikes in the Gaza, his credibility will suffer further, Abu Znaid adds.

Saeb Erekat, chief Palestinian negotiator, was more optimistic, raising the possibility of reaching what he called a "mutual tahdiya," using an Arabic word that suggests a calming or quieting of the conflict without an actual cease-fire.

"We need to begin a process of de-escalation," Dr. Erekat says. "We need to revive the negotiations and this goes parallel with Israel stopping attacks on Gaza and Hamas stopping the Qassam attacks on Israel."

After Rice's arrival from Egypt, she went straight to Ramallah, in the West Bank, to meet with Abbas and with Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. She was due to have dinner with Mr. Olmert in Jerusalem and to have more meetings on Wednesday morning with Israeli officials before continuing on to Europe.

Olmert has made it clear that Israel plans to continue operations in Gaza, although an Israeli ground invasion over the weekend came to end late Sunday night. A key weekly government meeting on security issues was postponed until Wednesday, confirming assumptions here that Israel lowered the intensity of its military campaign in order to give Rice a chance to revamp the diplomat track.

Olmert's spokesman told reporters on the eve of Rice's visit that the only way Israel see to deal with Hamas to try to stop it militarily.

"We believe pressure applied to the Hamas military machine could ultimately bring results. A Hamas that is weakened will mean a better chance for the peace process to succeed," said Mark Regev, Olmert's spokesman.

"We think it's a mistake to break off talks," Mr. Regev said of the PA's decision to halt negotiations with Israel. "We are not going to solve problems by not talking."

Among the demands of mid-level Palestinian politicians mounting the challenge to Abbas is that negotiations not be open-ended. "These negotiations need to be done within a time frame, since Israel otherwise will show the world forever that there are ongoing negotiations, as if they are being conducted between two countries and not between Israel and a weak [Palestinian] Authority," says Ayman Daraghmeh, a Ramallah-area PLC member aligned with Hamas. "Abbas should concentrate on the internal situation, by trying to initiate dialogue between Hamas and Fatah. This in my view is our priority and not fruitless negotiations with Israel."

[Editor's note: The original version misstated the number of times Condoleezza Rice has visited Jerusalem]

Nuha Musleh in Ramallah, West Bank, contributed to this report.

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