In Minor Breakthrough, Rice Coaxes Olmert, Abbas Toward Bargaining Table

By Ha’aretz and Forward Staff

Published March 30, 2007, issue of March 30, 2007.
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Jerusalem - Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas have agreed to meet every other week for talks that could include discussions about the formation of a Palestinian state, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said here this week.

Rice’s statement came at the end of three days of shuttle diplomacy between the two sides.

The agreement was seen as a partial breakthrough for Rice, since Israel had been reluctant to enter substantive discussions with the P.A. as long as its legislature and Cabinet were controlled by Hamas, which refuses to recognize Israel or to renounce terrorism.

Rice said that both Olmert and Abbas showed flexibility. Palestinians had been pressing for a far more sweeping agreement, including the opening of final-status talks.

“We are not yet at final-status negotiations,” Rice said. “These are initial discussions to build confidence between parties.”

Following Rice’s remarks, Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni confirmed to a group of European lawmakers that Israel had agreed “to conduct a dialogue on the conditions for establishing a Palestinian state,” according to a Foreign Ministry statement.

A senior Israeli official, however, said that substantive talks on statehood would not be on the agenda for now. “The issues would be security, humanitarian and the political horizon,” the official said, using diplomatic shorthand for the American-backed vision of a Palestinian state alongside a secure Israel.

“Political horizon is not about specifics,” the official added, apparently ruling out talks on such core issues as the future of Jerusalem, the borders of a Palestinian state and the fate of Palestinian refugees.

Rice told the press conference that her personal envoy will try to set benchmarks for implementing a cease-fire, including the halting of rocket fire from Gaza, and for improving the flow of Palestinian travelers and goods through Israeli crossings.

The secretary of state said that doors had been opened during her visit and that she was laying the groundwork for future peace talks. She said she believed it was still possible for a peace deal to be reached during President Bush’s term.

Rice said that her task had been complicated by the formation of the new Palestinian unity coalition government between Hamas and Fatah. A path to cooperation with the new government exists, she said, but first the government must renounce terrorism.

Rice also called on Arab states to take an active role in Middle East peacemaking. The Arab states, she said, should “show Israel that they accept its place in the Middle East, and demonstrate that the peace they seek is greater than just the absence of war.”

Aides said her remarks were directed mainly at Saudi Arabia, which was to host an Arab summit this week to discuss reviving the 2002 Saudi plan for Israeli-Palestinian peace. Israeli leaders have called the Saudi plan “positive,” but they object to its call for the “return” of Palestinian refugees. Israelis and Americans also object to the Arab League’s characterization of the plan as “nonnegotiable,” presumably meaning that Israel is expected to make sweeping concessions and then hope for the promised Arab response.

Rice called for Arab states to begin by offering substantive gestures to Israel, in order to build confidence. “Such bold outreach can turn the Arab League’s words into the basis for active diplomacy, and it can hasten the day when a state called Palestine will take its rightful place in the international community,” she said.

The chief Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat, said that Rice had “managed to keep the door open between us and Israel.” While Israel had tried to limit discussions to humanitarian and security issues, he said, Rice ensured that talks would include a “political horizon,” if not a final-status deal.

Rice also met briefly with the families of abducted Israeli soldiers Gilad Shalit, Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev. It was her first meeting with the families. During the 20-minute meeting, the families sought to have Rice join the efforts to release the abductees. Rice said that although she is happy to help, she is unable to talk directly with Hamas and Hezbollah. She said she would seek help from European intermediaries.

American officials had hoped that the secretary would announce a new diplomatic drive for talks toward Palestinian statehood. But the hopes were dampened late Monday, when she met with Olmert for a second time. The prime minister expressed strong opposition to any mention of the “core issues” in the final-status agreement with the Palestinians — namely Jerusalem, borders and refugees.

Following deliberations, Rice decided she would not make any dramatic statements during her closing news conference but instead would summarize her current diplomatic efforts.

Echoing the lack of any substantive progress, Erekat told Ha’aretz that there had been positive American efforts but there was no American plan to resume negotiations. The discussions between Olmert and Abbas will initially revolve around confidence-building measures and leave an opening for discussions on other issues in the future. Rice, for her part, will continue making periodic visits to the region, in which she will hold parallel talks with Israel and the Palestinians on issues pertaining to the “political horizon.”

Rice postponed the press conference, originally planned for Monday night, because of differences of opinion with Olmert over the content of her statement. She made it clear to Olmert that she is trying to flesh out the concept of a “political horizon.”

It appears that the compromise between their differing stances will be that the “core issues” will be mentioned in passing.

Olmert asked that any formula for resuming negotiations be based on the road map and the stages it proposes: combating terrorism dismantling outposts, a Palestinian state along interim borders and a final settlement.

Olmert also agreed to begin deliberations on less sensitive issues, such as the security arrangements of a future Palestinian state and the conditions for implementing the agreement on the basis of the road map.

He opposed a proposal by Rice that American mediation replace direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

For the Palestinians, maintaining constant and fluid contact with Olmert is, at this juncture, considered a priority.

Erekat said Monday that “one of the most important elements from the point of view of the P.A. is to maintain the channel of communication open between [Abbas] and Olmert. There is no substitute for this.”

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