Rice pushes Israeli, Palestinian leaders for new peace effort

Thursday, November 30th 2006, 4:20 pm
By: News On 6

DEAD SEA, Jordan (AP) _ Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice tried to build momentum Thursday for a fragile cease-fire agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians, urging both sides to expand the peace deal beyond the Gaza territory.

But U.S. options were limited, as Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said he was finished negotiating with radical Islamic militants who assumed control of the Palestinian government in January. Abbas has been trying to create a new unity government that would lift an international aid boycott, but elected Hamas leaders have refused to meet demands by the West and Israel that they renounce violence against Israel and recognize it as a state.

After a blitz of diplomatic meetings, Rice said she was still hopeful the small window of opportunity afforded by the cease-fire could be expanded into a long-lasting peace agreement.

``You don't expect great leaps forward,'' Rice told reporters. ``You expect just progress and I think we've seen progress.''

Rice met briefly with Abbas in the West Bank town of Jericho before driving to Jerusalem to meet separately with Israeli Prime Minster Ehud Olmert and Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni.

``Hopefully we can take this moment to accelerate our efforts and intensify our efforts toward the two-state solution that we all desire,'' Rice said at a news conference with Abbas.

Moderate Arab leaders consider a political deal between Israel and the Palestinians a necessity to quieting violence throughout the region, including Iraq and Lebanon.

U.S. and Iraqi officials briefed President Bush Thursday on a plan to accelerate the capability of the Iraqi security forces so U.S. troops can come home sooner. Rice said Bush is considering the recommendations and other proposals and recognizes the Iraq war is not making as much progress as hoped.

Rice said the U.S. would address Iraq and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on their own merits, but that they were linked.

``What is clear is that in all of those places, you have the obvious contest between moderate forces and extremist forces, and I think that's what common to all of them,'' Rice said. ``And you do have in all of those cases as well an Iranian factor that is undeniable.''

Regarding Iran, Rice said the U.S. would continue to press Tehran to stop its nuclear program, even without a detailed international agreement.

``Unity is not an end to itself,'' she said. ``The goal is to get a resolution that makes sense in terms of convincing the Iranians that their behavior is not acceptable in the international community.''

The recent cease-fire ended a five-month Israeli military offensive in the Gaza Strip and the firing of rockets by Palestinian militants from Gaza into Israel. Olmert on Monday announced he was prepared to grant Palestinians a state, release desperately needed funds and free prisoners if they choose the path of peace.

But prospects for real progress were dimmed by the political roadblock facing Abbas on Hamas' hardline position.

``Unfortunately now we have reached an impasse,'' Abbas said.

Asked about Abbas' options now, Rice declined to get involved.

``That's for the president to decide _ he's the elected official, not me,'' she said.

Rice accompanied Bush during morning sessions concerning Iraq in nearby Amman before breaking away for her meetings later with the Palestinian and Israeli leaders.

``Our government strongly believes in the two-state solution,'' Bush said Thursday at a news conference attended by Rice. ``I believe it's in the Palestinian people's interest that they have their own state and I believe it's in Israel's interest that there be a democracy on her border and therefore we're working to that end.''

The United States is under pressure from moderate Arab states to urge Israeli restraint and help Palestinians trying to cross the borders. Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmad Abou al-Gheit told reporters the U.S. must ``encourage Israel to soften the measures that they have been applying, at least in the West Bank.''

Rice said she hoped a lasting cease-fire would help alleviate those concerns. She also said the Bush administration wants to ask Congress for money to aid the development of a tougher Palestinian security force.

``It goes without saying that if you want the Palestinians to take more responsibility for security, then they have to have adequate security forces to do it and I think the Israelis understand that,'' Rice said in a media round-table following a summit meeting.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev told reporters that Olmert wants to extend the cease-fire to the West Bank once it has proven effective in the Gaza Strip.

Afterward, Rice attended a U.S.-backed Mideast democracy and development summit in Jordan, where she met with foreign ministers from the Gulf Cooperation Council, as well as Egypt and Jordan. The council is composed of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.