Rice plans summit with Israeli, Palestinian leaders

Goal is to move both sides toward `final status' issues

January 16, 2007|By Paul Richter and Richard Boudreaux | Paul Richter and Richard Boudreaux,LOS ANGELES TIMES

LUXOR, Egypt -- Seeking a fresh start for stalled Middle East peace efforts, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice won promises yesterday from the leaders of Israel and the Palestinian Authority to meet with her next month for their first discussion of a final peace deal in six years.

Rice said the Israeli prime minister, Ehud Olmert, and the Palestinian Authority's president, Mahmoud Abbas, had agreed to meet for "informal, broad discussions" about the final moves toward a Palestinian state in hopes that it will inject energy into talks that have been in near gridlock over initial steps.

"The parties haven't talked about these [final-stage] issues for a long time," Rice said after a meeting with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in this city on the banks of the Nile. "It seems wise to begin this ... to really just sit and talk about the issues."

U.S. officials believe that by shifting the focus to what the outcome would look like, they could galvanize a process that has been bogged down for years in difficult preliminary issues.

The goal of the initiative from Rice, who spent the past three days meeting with Israeli and Palestinian officials, is to move the two sides toward "final- status" issues, such as the shape of the new Palestinian state, the claims of Palestinian refugees to return to sites now in Israel and the fate of Jerusalem.

But, in a reminder of the difficulties that negotiators face, on the same day that Rice met with Olmert, the Israeli Housing Ministry announced plans to expand Maale Adumim, a large Jewish settlement in the West Bank just east of Jerusalem. The ministry plans to build 44 more units.

U.S. officials have protested continued building in the West Bank, but Israeli officials defended the decision. They said that it would not expand the perimeter of the settlement and that it was consistent with an agreement between Israelis and former Secretary of State Colin L. Powell that was reached before a U.S.-backed peace plan known as the "road map" called for a building freeze.

Saeb Erekat, a veteran Palestinian negotiator, said: "We condemn this step. This undermines efforts by Dr. Rice to revive the peace process and the road map. Israel must choose between building settlements and peace."

U.S. officials remained vague about the goals of the three-way meeting, but a senior official traveling with Rice said that it would explore "where do we want to go" and develop "some joint understanding of what's in it for each side."

Israeli officials said they had agreed to the talks but emphasized that Olmert would continue to carry on bilateral talks that deal with the nuts-and-bolts issues of the relationship - such as movement and access, funds, prisoners and violence. Those often-stalled talks have been complicated by conflicts between Abbas' Fatah movement and the more militant Hamas, which controls the Palestinian government.

Olmert told Israeli lawmakers from his Kadima party that if a Palestinian unity government made up of Hamas and Fatah agreed to accept "road map" conditions - recognition of Israel, the renunciation of violence and acceptance of previous accords - then negotiations on a peace settlement could be possible.

Palestinian officials reacted cautiously.

Ahmed Abdel-Rahman, a political adviser to Abbas, said Abbas was ready "in principle" to attend the three-way summit but was waiting for a date and a venue to be agreed. "We welcome American participation in any Palestinian-Israeli meeting," he said.

Paul Richter and Richard Boudreaux write for the Los Angeles Times.

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