Monday, November 05, 2007

Rice lowers bar for upcoming peace talks again

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice heard a strong message from Israel on Sunday that security must precede the creation of a Palestinian state, as she sought to bridge gaps ahead of a peace meeting. Making her eighth visit this year for shuttle diplomacy between Israel and the Palestinians, Rice lowered expectations of rapid agreement on a joint document for the US-sponsored meeting expected later this year in Annapolis, Maryland.
"I think what you are really starting to see here is that people are starting to see Annapolis as the beginning of a process, not a single point in time," Rice told journalists. "People are starting to address really difficult issues that they had not addressed in a long time."
Former British Premier Tony Blair, as the special envoy for the diplomatic "Quartet" of Mideast peace brokers - the US, EU, UN and Russsia - echoed Rice's confidence on Sunday.
Blair said the upcoming talks "give people a sense that we can reach agreement between the Israelis and Palestinians. It's got to give a sense that the peace process is now ... renewed, back on track."
Israeli officials have said that negotiations should be based on a 2003 peace blueprint endorsed by the international community, insisting that Israeli security come before the creation of a Palestinian state.
"The road map should be the guiding principle for any further progress between Israel and the Palestinians," Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told Rice during their meeting, according to a senior Israeli official.
The "road map" has made next to no progress since it was adopted more than four year ago, and has already missed its first deadline for establishing a Palestinian state.
The Palestinians have pushed for a more concrete document that addresses the most contested issues - Occupied Jerusalem, borders, and refugees - and sets a timetable for implementation.
"The negotiations are going to be difficult and challenging, but we have the desire and we have hope, and we are confident we will arrive at a good result," Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said on Sunday in a speech in Ramallah.
Palestinian negotiators and their Israeli counterparts have been divided for weeks over a joint document they are supposed to draw up for the Annapolis - not a single word has yet to be written.
Rice met Olmert, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, and Blair before she was to address the Saban Forum think tank in Occupied Jerusalem.

On Monday, she is to meet Abbas, Ahmad Qoreia (who heads his negotiating team) and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.
The Palestinians have asked that Rice put pressure on Israel, insisting that Israeli security will only come with a larger political settlement.
"The statements of some Israeli officials that consider Israeli security more important than the establishment of a Palestinian state hinder an agreement," Abbas spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeina said. "The establishment of a Palestinian state is what will guarantee the security and stability of the whole region."
Abbas has called for a six-month deadline for a comprehensive deal with Israel, insisting: "We will not accept leaving these questions open for ever."
Arab powers likely to be invited to the conference have been skeptical about its chances of success without any serious effort to address the concerns of all involved.
Jordan's King Abdullah warned Sunday it was imperative to achieve success and urged Israel to take steps to rebuild confidence with Palestinians.
"There must also be support for the Palestinian Authority's efforts to improve the economic conditions of the Palestinian people and to bolster its national institutions," Abdullah told a visiting delegation from the Washington-based Brookings Institution. "The political leaders must understand that people themselves will pay the price, should the negotiations fail."
Hamas, which has ruled the Gaza Strip since June, has rejected the conference outright.
"Its well-known goals are normalization with the Arabs, the hardening of internal divisions and the preparation for the coming attack on Iran and Gaza and Syria and Lebanon," deposed Prime Minister Ismail Haniyya if Hamas said. "It is a preparation to impose the road map, which means the disarmament of the resistance."
Haniyya also dismissed rumors that Hamas wanted to seize power in the West Bank.
"I want to emphasize here that all the reports that we want to repeat what happened in Gaza in the West Bank are baseless," Haniyya said in a speech. "This is not going to happen."
Israeli air strikes and shelling killed four Palestinians in Gaza on Sunday.
Israeli police said Sunday they had arrested three Arab residents of Jerusalem over a suspected bomb plot to coincide with Rice's trip. - Agencies

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