LONDON (AP) – Tentative talks between Israel and the Palestinians aimed at restarting the stalled peace process could begin next month, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said during meetings in Europe to rally support from British and German leaders.
A three-way meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas would likely take place in the Middle East in the first half of February, but would not constitute formal negotiations, Rice said Thursday.
Winding up a weeklong tour of the Middle East and Europe, Rice briefed German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin and said U.S., German and other diplomats would convene a Middle East strategy session early next month in Washington.
Rice later held talks with British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett. Blair has made the task of helping revive peace talks a key goal of his final months in office. He toured the region in December.
During a more than two-hour meeting Thursday, Rice and Beckett met “to take stock of the secretary of state’s tour,” a British government official said Friday, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly. “They discussed ways of stimulating a dialogue between the Israelis and Palestinians to work toward a two-state solution,” the official said.
Rice said her planned discussions with Olmert and Abbas would form a peacemaking summit, ahead of later talks to tackle the toughest issues. “We’re not yet at the point where I think we can determine what we would do about formal negotiations, when and if” they can occur, Rice said. “It’s really a time to try to get the parties into more of a confidence-building phase and we’ll see what comes after that.”
Both leaders have suffered blows to their authority in the last year: Olmert by last summer’s disappointing war in Lebanon and allegations of political corruption in his ranks; Abbas by his yearlong internal power struggle with Hamas radicals.
Blair has pledged Britain would provide assistance to Abbas. His advisers said he planned to discuss that task with Rice during talks at his Downing Street office. The British leader, who will step down by September, met Rice without his staff present, and planned to brief his advisers on the session Friday, a Downing Street spokesman said while speaking on condition of anonymity in line with government policy.
Rice acknowledged that the requirements of the 2003 step-by-step plan for Palestinian statehood, known as the “road map,” had become something of an obstacle in restarting talks between the two sides, but she said it remains the guideline.
“Everybody understands the obligations in it, but we’d gotten to a place that it was stalled,” Rice said, “because if they weren’t making progress on the first phase of the road map, then you couldn’t talk about the end of the road map and what might lead to the establishment of a Palestinian state.”
Speaking in Berlin, Rice said, the three-way session would not supplant the dormant 2003 peace plan, but would look beyond some of the difficult requirements to consider what the end game of a Palestinian state might look like. “I did find the parties very desirous of making progress,” she added. “I believe the whole region is looking for ways to make progress and drive toward the establishment of a Palestinian state.”
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who met with Rice on her European tour, said Thursday that a meeting of the so-called Quartet of Mideast negotiators, the United States, European Union, Russia and the United Nations, could take place around Feb. 2 in Washington.
Israel’s deputy defense minister, Ephraim Sneh, said Thursday that Israel and the Palestinians can wrap up a final peace deal within two years, but the international climate for such talks might not remain favorable for long.
Beckett and Rice also discussed the standoff over Iran’s uranium enrichment program, the government official said. Mohamed ElBaradei, head of International Atomic Energy Agency, said Thursday in Paris that U.N. sanctions being imposed on Iran threatened to escalate the situation. “I would support any effort by any side to engage Iran,” ElBaradei said. “My worry right now is that each side is sticking to its guns.”
Last year, the United States said it would join talks with Iran and others if it verifiably halted uranium enrichment, a process that can produce fissile material to fuel nuclear reactors or, at purer concentrations, the core of nuclear weapons.