RAMALLAH, West Bank, (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice pressed Israel and the Palestinians on Thursday to talk about the key issues that would lead to the creation of a Palestinian state.
The most troublesome of these are the so-called final status matters — the future of Jerusalem, the borders of a Palestinian state and the right of return of refugees.
Israel is balking at such a broad commitment at this stage, but Rice noted Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had said he was ready to discuss fundamental issues leading to a Palestinian state, though she gave no details. “There should be a deepening of the dialogue between the Palestinians and the Israelis on all of the issues that will lead ultimately to the founding of a Palestinian state,” she told a news conference with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
Rice is on a visit to the West Bank aimed at bolstering the Fatah leader and his government, six weeks after Hamas Islamists took over the Gaza Strip. The United States is pushing for Abbas and Olmert, due to meet next week, to start tackling the more prickly issues, as Abbas wants.
Israeli officials have spoken instead of formulating with Abbas “agreed principles” for establishing a Palestinian state. One senior Israeli government official said Israel was prepared to begin discussing border issues in general terms with Abbas, but saw the fate of Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees as too sensitive for the time being.
At the news conference, Abbas said it was important for Palestinians “to know what the result will be, what the end game will be” in their talks with Israel, an apparent reference to their desire for a state. “But on the issue of phases of implementation, this can be agreed upon later.”
Olmert told Rice on Wednesday that Hamas, which has rejected international calls to recognise Israel, renounce violence and accept existing interim peace deals, had to be “kept out of the game” as Israel explores new cooperation with the Palestinians.
On her four-day trip to the Middle East, Rice won tacit Saudi backing for a proposed peace conference later this year. But analysts are pessimistic about Rice’s new push, coming at a time when the Palestinian territories are divided between Hamas, which seized the Gaza Strip in June, and Abbas’s secular Fatah whose forces dominate the West Bank.
U.S. President George W. Bush has just 17 months left in office and despite labelling the Israeli-Palestinian conflict a priority, its most pressing concern is Iraq and mounting domestic pressure to bring U.S. troops home. But Rice, who met Prime Minister Salam Fayyad in the West Bank city of Ramallah ahead of her talks with Abbas, has made clear she has faith in the Fatah leader and says he is entitled to negotiate on behalf of all Palestinians.
During her visit, she has been trying to harvest support for the U.S.-proposed Middle East peace conference, though the date and venue are not known and its mandate is unclear.
A senior U.S. official said it would most likely be held after mid-October.