JERUSALEM, (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice embarked on a fresh effort to revive Israeli-Palestinian peace talks on Saturday but said she would not present any concrete new initiative.
Her trip to the region comes as the United States seeks to boost Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in his showdown with the ruling Hamas Islamists. Washington plans to pour $86 million into helping train and equip Abbas’s presidential guard.
“I’m not coming with a proposal. I’m not coming with a plan,” Rice told reporters on her way to Israel, according to a State Department transcript of her remarks.
U.S. officials have sought to play down expectations for the trip, Rice’s eighth to the region during her two years as secretary of state, and have suggested she is testing the waters to see what might be possible.
Rice was meeting Israel’s defence and foreign ministers on Saturday evening and will see the moderate Abbas in the West Bank city of Ramallah on Sunday. She will meet Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on Monday.
She will also seek Arab help to stabilise Iraq during a Middle East trip that will include stops in Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait as well as Germany and Britain.
On Wednesday, President George W. Bush said he would send 21,500 extra troops to Iraq despite fierce opposition from the new Democratic-led Congress.
Washington is under pressure from European and Arab allies to get more involved in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Peace talks collapsed in 2000.
Rice said she wanted to talk about accelerating the U.S.-backed peace “road map”. Israelis and Palestinians have both failed to meet the blueprint’s obligations.
Hamas refuses to recognise Israel’s right to exist, respect past peace deals or renounce violence — three conditions set out by a “Quartet” of Middle East peace mediators for ending a Western aid boycott of the militant movement’s government.
Abbas seeks a state through negotiations with Israel. “One thing is certain: Hamas is armed and the worst outcome would be that the Palestinians who are, in fact, devoted to the road map … are the ones who are unarmed,” Rice said.
Israeli officials said Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Rice have been discussing the possibility of creating a Palestinian state with temporary borders following the path of a barrier Israel is building in and around the occupied West Bank.
One senior Israeli official said Rice wanted to discuss some of the most sensitive issues, including the future of Jerusalem, with both sides “in order to see if there’s space for progress on a Palestinian state in the next two years”. “This is in preparation of a possible big move ahead,” the official said.
Abbas has repeatedly rejected the idea of a state with temporary borders. Palestinians fear such borders would become final, leaving them with a truncated state. “We don’t believe this is an issue that would lead to a political solution or to opening the door for renewing the peace process,” said Yasser Abed Rabbo, a senior Abbas aide.
Washington has been encouraging Olmert to meet Abbas again after they held their first formal talks on Dec. 23.
Rice is also expected to press Olmert to fulfil pledges made at that meeting to remove West Bank roadblocks and release $100 million in withheld tax funds to Abbas, Israeli officials said.