JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israeli and Palestinian leaders have agreed to hold confidence-building talks every two weeks that could eventually lead to discussions on a Palestinian state, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said on Tuesday.
An official in Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s office, speaking amid Israeli media reports of dissonance with Rice over how to proceed toward peacemaking, made clear substantive negotiations on statehood would not be on the agenda for now.
“The issues would be security, humanitarian and the political horizon,” the official said, the latter term a loose reference to a U.S.-backed vision of a Palestinian state alongside a secure Israel.
“Political horizon is not about specifics,” the official said, appearing to rule out any discussion soon on core issues such as the future of Jerusalem, the borders of a Palestinian state and the fate of Palestinian refugees.
On her fourth visit in four months, Rice has been trying to revive peace hopes dimmed last year by the establishment of a Hamas-led Palestinian government and further complicated by the creation earlier this month of a unity administration.
The power-sharing partnership between Hamas Islamists and President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah faction has not met demands by a Quartet of Middle East mediators to recognize Israel, renounce violence and accept existing interim peace accords.
At a news conference postponed from Monday evening after reported discord with Olmert, Rice said the prime minister and Abbas “have agreed that they plan to meet together bi-weekly.”
“We are not yet at final-status negotiations. These are initial discussions to build confidence,” Rice said.
Olmert told reporters on Monday he would maintain constant contacts with Abbas, but did not say how frequently they would meet. The Israeli leader said after the unity government was inaugurated he would limit such talks to humanitarian issues.
Saeb Erekat, a senior adviser to Abbas, said Rice “managed to keep the door open between us and the Israelis which was closing rapidly in the past few days.”
Olmert’s agreement to see Abbas every two weeks appeared to be a gesture to Washington, which is eager to show the Arab world and European allies it is making efforts to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“We have to recognize that a conflict that has gone on for decades and in which there is so much distrust, and in which there has been so much violence, and so much death, it’s going to take some time to achieve our goals,” Rice said.
Rice shuttled for two days between Olmert and Abbas as Arab states prepared to relaunch, at a summit opening in Riyadh on Wednesday, a five-year-old peace plan that offers Israel normal ties in return for a full withdrawal from land it occupied in the 1967 Middle East war.
Rice hopes that steps toward a broader Arab-Israeli reconciliation would make it easier to make progress on the Israeli-Palestinian track.
“The Arab states should begin reaching out to Israel to reassure Israel that its place in the region will be more — not less — secure by an end to the occupation and the establishment of a Palestinian state,” Rice said.
Rice said the talks between Abbas and Olmert would focus on security issues but also “begin to discuss the development of a political horizon consistent with the establishment of a Palestinian state in accordance with the ‘road map’.”
Neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians have fulfilled their commitments under the U.S.-backed plan, which calls for Israel to halt settlement building in the occupied West Bank and the Palestinians to dismantle militant groups.
Rice said she would periodically meet Olmert and Abbas “sometimes separately, sometimes together, in whatever form will be most effective to accelerate progress.”