RAMALLAH, West Bank, (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice came away from a meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Tuesday without any public commitment to resume peace talks he froze over Israel’s Gaza offensive. “We look forward to the resumption of those negotiations as soon as possible,” she told a joint news conference with Abbas in the West Bank city of Ramallah.
Rice gave no sign she secured his agreement to return to talks he suspended on Sunday in protest at an Israeli operation in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip that killed more than 120 Palestinians. Medical workers said about half were civilians.
Israel ended the operation on Monday, five days after it began, and threatened to send its forces back in if cross-border rocket attacks continued.
U.S. officials said Rice pressed Abbas at their meeting on the issue of restarting talks. At the news conference, he sidestepped a question on when they might get under way. “I call on the Israeli government to halt its aggression in order that we can afford the necessary atmosphere to conduct the negotiations,” Abbas said, without setting any timeframe for their resumption.
Washington hopes a deal on Palestinian statehood can be reached before President George W. Bush leaves office in January. “I still believe that can be done,” said Rice, who was due to meet Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert later in the day and hold further talks with Israeli and Palestinian officials on Wednesday before leaving the region.
Condemning the Gaza operation and also urging an end to rocket salvoes that have disrupted life in southern Israel, Abbas said he wanted a complete truce in the Gaza Strip and in the occupied West Bank.
A ceasefire, he said, could help “achieve our objective of making 2008 a year for peace”.
Islamist Hamas, which seized control of the Gaza Strip from Abbas’s Fatah faction in fighting last June, said he should be focusing instead on Israel’s “aggression against our people and not equating the victim with the slaughterer”.
Rice, who has accusing Hamas of trying to wreck chances for peace, said Israel had a right to defend itself against rocket attacks but needed to do its utmost to ensure innocent Palestinians were not harmed.
Abbas said 20 children had been among dozens of civilians killed in the Gaza operation, Israel’s most powerful thrust into the territory since it withdrew settlers and its army in 2005 after 38 years of occupation.
“No one can justify the killing actions of the Israeli army over the past few days,” he said.
Israel says Hamas bears responsibility for civilian deaths because its gunmen launch rockets from heavily populated areas.
Both Rice and Abbas cited the importance of a U.S.-backed “road map” to the peace process.
Under the 2003 plan, Israel was to halt all settlement activity in the West Bank and Palestinians were to crack down on militants. “There could be improvement on road map obligations on both sides and this is what I will be stressing in talks,” Rice said.
Before flying to Israel, Rice said during talks in Cairo that only negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority could lead to lasting peace.