AMMAN,(Reuters) – Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice embarks on a new push to revive peace moves between Israel and the Palestinians on Wednesday with the United States under pressure from Arab allies to make it a priority.
Rice, who arrives in Jordan on Wednesday, is due to meet Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in Jerusalem for talks on Thursday.
Rice will first attend a summit between U.S. President George W. Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki in Amman.
Hopes of reviving Israeli-Palestinian talks got a sudden lift this week when a ceasefire took hold in the Gaza Strip to end five months of bloodshed and Olmert made a new call for permanent peace with the Palestinians.
Washington is under pressure from moderate Arab allies and British Prime Minister Tony Blair to tackle decades of Middle East conflict, while also trying to halt violence in Iraq. Peace talks collapsed in 2000 before a Palestinian uprising broke out.
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said security issues would top the agenda at the talks with Abbas with the United States offering suggestions on how to prevent “terrorist” attacks and rockets being fired from Gaza into Israel.
U.S. officials said Rice would call for movement on breaking the impasse in forming a Palestinian unity government with Hamas, the Islamist militant group that won elections last January and whose administration is under Western sanctions. “We have encouraged Abu Mazen (Abbas) to find a way out of this and if he can’t then he has other options available,” a senior State Department official told Reuters.
Abbas has told Jordan talks on a unity government have hit a dead end and he will pursue other options.
These could include dismissal of the Hamas government and the appointment of a new prime minister, a move that could trigger new violence between the two factions.
After meeting Abbas in the ancient oasis city of Jericho, Rice heads to Jerusalem to meet Olmert and Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni for talks expected to look at how to ensure the ceasefire is fully implemented.
In one early sign of progress following the truce, Egypt’s intelligence chief met Olmert on Wednesday for talks on a possible exchange of Palestinian prisoners for an Israeli soldier held by militants in the Gaza Strip. But officials said there was disagreement over the number of prisoners who would be freed, with Hamas’s armed wing and two other groups that captured Corporal Gilad Shalit seeking 1,400 prisoners in exchange. Agreement on timing was also an obstacle.
One Israeli minister said after the talks with Suleiman that he hoped Shalit would be home “by the end of the year.”
Israel has made clear Shalit’s release is essential for peace talks. It says the Palestinians also need to have a government in place that is ready to recognise Israel, renounce violence and accept past peace accords.
Hamas, which won elections in January and whose charter calls for Israel’s destruction, has rejected Western demands to accept those conditions. In Cairo, Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh reiterated the militant group’s position that as a first step, it seeks a state on land captured by Israel in the 1967 war.
Some Middle East experts doubt Rice can make much progress on this trip. “The question still is, how much can you move when there really isn’t consensus among the Palestinians or the Israelis on when or what to move to?” said Jon Alterman of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.