Rice meets with Sharon, says `hard decisions' ahead

Secretary of state pushing to revive peace `road map'

February 07, 2005|By Ken Ellingwood | Ken Ellingwood,LOS ANGELES TIMES

JERUSALEM - Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, striking a note of optimism on her first visit to the Middle East as the top U.S. diplomat, urged Israeli leaders yesterday to make the "hard decisions" needed to promote a democratic Palestinian state and put the peace process back on track.

Rice met with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon just days before a planned Middle East summit aimed at resuscitating efforts to end more than four years of conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.

"This is a hopeful time, but this also is a time of great responsibility for all of us to make certain that we act on the words that we speak," she told reporters with Sharon at her side. The prime minister said the visit "will contribute to the peace process, which we would so much like to advance in the region."

Rice's visit came on a day that saw conciliatory gestures from both sides. Israeli Defense Minster Shaul Mofaz told the Cabinet yesterday that the army would hold off on operations aimed at capturing Palestinian militants, Israeli news media reported. The mainstream Palestinian movement Fatah, meanwhile, issued a call for a mutual cease-fire with Israel.

Also over the weekend, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators made headway on the number of prisoners Israel will free as a goodwill gesture, an issue expected to be on the agenda at tomorrow's summit at the Egyptian resort of Sharm el Sheik.

In a television interview after her meeting with Sharon, Rice urged Israel to avoid taking unilateral action on issues reserved for formal peace talks, such as the status of Jerusalem, which is claimed by both sides.

Rice has said she plans to be directly involved in efforts to revive the U.S.-backed peace "road map" at a moment when the death of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Israel's plan to abandon the Gaza Strip have created perhaps the most promising chance for progress since violence erupted in September 2000.

"We will ask of our partners and our friends here in Israel that Israel continue to make the hard decisions that must be taken in order to promote peace and help the emergence of a democratic Palestinian state," Rice said before a meeting with Israel's foreign minister, Silvan Shalom.

Rice will meet with Palestinian officials, including newly elected Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, today before heading to Rome as part of an eight-day overseas swing.

The Mideast stop is meant to underscore the Bush administration's determination to revive its road-map initiative, which stalled because neither side lived up to preliminary commitments.

Bush has been widely criticized for taking a hands-off approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict after watching his predecessor, Bill Clinton, fail in an intensive personal effort to broker an agreement.

Administration officials say they plan to move cautiously by helping Israel and the Palestinians build trust through their own talks and incremental moves, rather than trying to steer the agenda.

Rice, for example, will not attend tomorrow's four-way summit at Sharm el Sheik. The summit, hosted by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, will be the first face-to-face meeting between Sharon and Abbas since Abbas became Palestinian president last month. Jordan's King Abdullah II, who in 2003 hosted a summit attended by Sharon, Abbas and President Bush, will also attend.

There were reports that Israeli officials were unenthusiastic about Rice's visit out of concern that a U.S. mediation bid would push Israel for concessions it is not ready to make. Palestinian officials say any progress will require international pressure on Israel, especially from the United States.

"In Israel, there is concern that an American mediator will assist Abbas beyond the level at which Sharon is comfortable with, and by this weaken the Israeli position," diplomatic writer Aluf Benn wrote in the daily Haaretz newspaper.

Security arrangements and the release of Palestinian prisoners are among the issues on the table as Israelis and Palestinians work to bridge differences in advance of the summit.

Mofaz, the defense minister, said yesterday that he had approved releasing from prison the teenage son of Marwan Barghouti, an immensely popular uprising leader imprisoned in connection with the killings of five people in armed attacks. Israel has so far ruled against Palestinian calls to free the elder Barghouti.

Over the weekend, Sharon aide Dov Weisglass and Mohammed Dahlan, a former Palestinian security chief representing Abbas, agreed to set up a joint committee that will review the list of prisoners who could be freed after the summit.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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