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| || ||Israeli, Palestinian leaders plan talks |
By ANNE GEARAN, AP Diplomatic Writer
Israeli and Palestinian leaders have agreed to meet every two weeks to discuss day-to-day issues, a small step in a quickening diplomatic pace that could lead to talks on a final peace settlement, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice announced Tuesday.
After shuttling between the two sides for the past three days, Rice also said that an American general serving as her security envoy will try to set benchmarks for a cease-fire, including halting rocket fire from Gaza and improving the flow of Palestinian travelers and goods through Israeli crossings.
"The Israelis and the Palestinians are taking the inital step on the path to peace," Rice said. "The American role will include helping them to overcome obstacles, develop new ideas and rally international support for their efforts."
Rice said the first talks between the two leaders will be on practical questions, not the so-called "final status" issues defining peace and security between Israel and an independent Palestine. But she did not rule out formal negotiations on those hard questions before President Bush leaves office in less than two years.
The most difficult issues dividing Israel and the Palestinians include the borders of an eventual Palestinian state, the fate of disputed Jerusalem and the rights of Palestinians and their descendants who left land when Israel was formed in 1948.
Rice praised Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas for flexibility and resolve, although both leaders have balked at making overtures suggested by the United States.
"They achieved something, which is the very regularized meetings between the two of them, in which they will not just talk about their day-to-day issues, but also about a political horizon," Rice said, speaking at a news conference in Jerusalem.
But a senior Israeli government official said that for now, Olmert will only talk to Abbas about security and humanitarian issues, as well as a "general political horizon," which was not further defined by Rice or Israeli officials. Olmert will not discuss specifics, such as the borders of a future Palestinian state, said the official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Olmert could start addressing final status issues once there is no more rocket fire from Gaza and Hamas-allied militants release an Israeli soldier they captured nine months ago, added the official.
Rice called on Arab states to hold contacts with Israel, and said peacemaking was made "more complex" by Hamas' presence in the government with Abbas. Israel, the United States and the European Union count Hamas as a terror group.
She called on Arab states to hold contacts with Israel, and called a dormant 2002 Arab peace proposal "a welcome example of such new thinking."
Rice, whose visit was timed before a critical Arab League summit later this week in Saudi Arabia, wants Arab states to reissue the broad 2002 land-for-peace offer to Israel, and be willing to negotiate with the Jewish state. Some version of the plan is expected to be part of the upcoming summit in Riyadh.
"Applause at the end of the road will be welcome, but help now in moving down that road is far more important," Rice told reporters.
She arrived in the region Saturday for her fourth visit in four months. Rice has defined modest initial goals as she tries to push Israeli and Palestinian leaders closer to resuming peace talks and recruit help from Arab states, and said Tuesday she is delighted with the results so far.
"I don't think four visits in four months is going to solve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict," Rice said, but she said she has made a start toward developing a common agenda that could be the basis for substantive peace talks.
"I think we've achieved what we set out to achieve," Rice told reporters, adding that the two leaders surprised her by agreeing to hold more regular and fulsome discussions.
Abbas aide Saeb Erekat said Rice had "managed to keep the door open between us and Israel."
Notwithstanding the Israeli position on limiting discussions to humanitarian and security issues, Erekat said Rice envisioned that talks would be broader.
"Today the secretary succeeded in maintaining the channel of political communication between President Abbas and Prime Minister Olmert," Erekat said.
It was not clear when Olmert and Abbas might meet, although Palestinian officials had said U.S. diplomats proposed a date in mid-April.
The new Palestinian government, a coalition between the Islamist Hamas group and the more moderate Fatah, was inaugurated last week. Rice said a "path to cooperation" with the new government exists, but that it must first renounce terrorism.
Abbas has called the deal the best he could get from the politically formidable militants, and a necessary step to end deadly internal Palestinian violence.
Olmert, who once had called Abbas a "partner for peace," had said the deal meant he would limit talks with the Palestinian leader to humanitarian or similar immediate concerns. He initially ruled out more detailed discussions or negotiations.
Olmert's reconsideration of that initial stance was a small step, since Olmert held several sessions with Abbas before the Hamas deal, but a sign of fresh and surprising traction toward peace talks despite the complication posed by Hamas.
U.S. and Israeli negotiators haggled behind closed doors for several hours Monday night, apparently stuck over the scope of talks Olmert would permit with Abbas.
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