RAMALLAH, West Bank, (AP) -Palestinian leaders sought details Thursday from Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice about the goals of what they hope will be a breakthrough Mideast peace conference, but the talks were overshadowed by Israel’s declaration of Hamas-run Gaza as “hostile territory.”
The Palestinians want the conference, tentatively set for November, to yield an outline for a peace deal, complete with timetable, while Israel wants a vaguer declaration of intent. Key Arab states, such as Saudi Arabia, have said they would only attend if concrete results are achieved.
Rice was meeting separately Thursday with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and his prime minister, Salam Fayyad, in the West Bank city of Ramallah.
“We feel we must begin serious preparations for the anticipated conference in the fall,” said Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat. “That’s the focus.”
Rice has said the United States is trying to help both sides reach “common understanding,” but she did not say if the U.S.-sponsored peace meeting would address the hardest issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, including the borders of a Palestinians state, a solution for Palestinian refugees and the status of disputed Jerusalem.
The United States has not said exactly what it wants to achieve from the summit, nor who will attend.
Israel’s designation Wednesday of Gaza as “hostile territory,” accompanied by a threat to cut back vital supplies of fuel and electricity, also would be raised, Erekat said. Abbas denounced the decision as “oppressive” and said it would increase the suffering of Gaza’s residents.
However, Abbas didn’t call off peace efforts with Israel in response to the move. And Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s office said the decision still required a legal review, suggesting it could be a means to pressure Gaza militants to halt rocket fire.
But Israel’s threat is likely to reinforce perceptions among Palestinians and their Arab backers that Israel will do as it sees fit regardless of the cost to civilians, and that the U.S. will not block Israel’s hand.
Asked to comment on the decision, Rice said: “We will not abandon the innocent Palestinians in Gaza, and indeed will make every effort to deal with their humanitarian needs.”
But she did not criticize the Israeli move, saying, “Hamas is a hostile entity to the United States as well.”
Abbas, too, is in a bitter struggle with Gaza’s Hamas rulers, who seized control of the coastal strip in June and forced him to set up a separate government in the West Bank.
Israel’s decision came just hours before Rice’s arrival Wednesday for meetings with Olmert and other Israeli leaders as part of the preparations for the fall conference.
Early Thursday, she held talks with Israeli President Shimon Peres, before heading to Ramallah for meetings with Abbas and Fayyad.
Abbas and Olmert have held periodic talks in recent months, and agreed to set up negotiating teams that would try to reach the general outline of a peace deal ahead of the conference.
Rice is due to speak with Olmert again after her meeting with Abbas.