JERICHO, West Bank,(Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Thursday to bolster peace efforts with Israel after a surprise ceasefire deal in Gaza.
The United States wants to strengthen Abbas, a moderate who has been caught in a power struggle with the Hamas Islamist group that took over the Palestinian government in March after winning parliamentary elections.
Abbas is expected to tell Rice his talks with Hamas on a unity government are deadlocked. His options might include sacking the Hamas-led cabinet and appointing a new one. Rice will later hold talks with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in Jerusalem. “There is no question that if we were able to settle the Israeli-Palestinian ssue it would help bring more peace to the Middle East,” U.S. President George W. Bush after a meeting in Amman with Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. “Therefore our government is focused on helping develop the two-state solution.” Rice arrived in Jordan with Bush on Wednesday and met with Abbas in the West Bank city of Jericho.
U.S. officials said Washington’s goal was to capitalise on a fragile ceasefire deal between the Palestinians and the Israelis last weekend in Gaza and to expand that deal to the West Bank. They said Rice’s talks with Abbas would focus on efforts to strengthen his security forces.
Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia are pushing hard for the United States to become more involved in trying to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict in the hope that this will help the situation in Iraq. But many obstacles exist. Those include the handover of prisoners from both sides and deadlocked negotiations between Abbas and the governing militant group Hamas to form a new unity government that would lead to the West lifting restrictions on the Palestinian Authority.
Hamas has resisted pressure from Western states and Abbas to recognise Israel, renounce violence and accept past accords with Israel. Abbas’s aides say he believes talks with Hamas are at a dead end, but it is unclear if he plans to sack the government.
In Amman, Bush emphasised his backing for strong moves by Abbas. “He deserves support in peeling his government away from those who do not recognise Israel’s right to exist,” Bush said.
Ismail Rudwan, a Hamas spokesman, accused Bush of “trying to plant seeds for sedition to encourage a civil war”. Rice is also seeking Olmert’s cooperation in bolstering Abbas’s presidential guard and is pressing Israel to ease travel restrictions, as she has on previous visits.
After meeting the Palestinians and the Israelis, Rice is set to go to the Dead Sea in Jordan to meet ministers from the Gulf Cooperation Council as well as Egypt and Jordan. “This offers an excellent forum to discuss a lot of regional issues,” said a senior State Department official. He said the United States believed there was a “moderate core” of Arab nations that could help advance the peace process between the Israelis and the Palestinians.
In one early sign of progress in reviving peace talks, Egypt’s intelligence chief met Olmert on Wednesday to discuss a possible exchange of Palestinian prisoners for an Israeli soldier held by militants in Gaza.
Following those talks, Israel released one of the Hamas government ministers it detained after militants abducted Corporal Gilad Shalit in June. It was not immediately clear whether the release could be part of a broader exchange.