Rice pushes Olmert to join peace talks

Main topics would be Jerusalem, refugees, Palestinian state's borders

March 27, 2007|By New York Times News Service

JERUSALEM -- Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice pressed Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert yesterday to agree to peace talks that would include three issues that have bedeviled Middle East negotiations since 1979.

Late last evening, Olmert had not agreed to allow negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians to include discussions about the status of Jerusalem, the borders of an eventual Palestinian state or the question of whether Palestinian refugees who fled, or were forced to leave, their homes would have a right to return to Israel.

Olmert did agree to continue to hold talks with the Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas, on day-to-day issues, U.S. and Israeli officials said.

Rice had scheduled a news conference for yesterday evening at which she hoped to announce the start of peace talks between the Israelis and the Palestinians that would include those three issues. It was canceled but the haggling went on.

U.S. and Israeli officials said they expect Olmert to enter into wide-ranging peace talks if Rice can procure a concession from Arab countries -- particularly Saudi Arabia -- that they would agree to a diplomatic initiative or to talks with Israel, perhaps under a U.N. umbrella.

Rice has been shuttling among Jerusalem and several Arab cities to try to get the Arab leaders to offer Olmert, whose popularity in Israel is low after the war with Hezbollah in Lebanon in July, enough political cover to enable him to make a deal.

"Some good things are there," Rice told King Abdullah II of Jordan after her arrival at the king's private residence for a meeting yesterday. "We just have to put them together."

In the Saudi capital, Riyadh, Arab states agreed to restart a peace initiative with Israel at their summit meeting this week. The proposal, dormant for five years, would offer Israel normalized relations with Arab states, including Saudi Arabia, in return for Israel's withdrawal from land it has occupied since 1967.

Israel rejected the plan -- ostensibly a take-it-or-leave-it approach that also stipulates that Palestinians have the right to return to Israel -- when it was presented in 2002. But recently, Olmert and Tzipi Livni, the Israeli foreign minister, have sounded positive notes about the Arab plan while maintaining that the refugee question remains off the table.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon, also in a third day of Middle East diplomacy, said in Jerusalem that representatives from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, along with Israeli and Palestinian officials, might be invited to attend the next meeting of Russia, the United States, the European Union and the United Nations, the "Quartet" working on Middle East peace.

Ban was quoted in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz as saying that the invitation had been issued, which sent U.S. officials into damage control.

Rice and her negotiating team have taken pains on this trip not to appear to be pressing Saudi Arabia to do anything it does not want to do, and they have repeated publicly several times that the United States is not dictating anything to the Arab League before its summit meeting.

A senior Bush administration official in Jerusalem cautioned that it remained unclear yesterday whether Saudi Arabia would agree to a public meeting with Israel.

"The only decision that has been made by the Quartet is that we will meet at some point in the region," Rice said before meeting with Livni. "Precisely what geometry we might use has not really been decided or really fully considered by the Quartet or by other parties."

At a news conference with Olmert, Ban said officials were only considering a joint meeting.

"I think it is a very interesting and useful idea to consider, but we need more presentation of the Quartet and countries concerned," he said.

Olmert said that "if such an invitation arrived at my address, I would treat it in a very positive manner."

Reuters reported that Arab officials in Riyadh said only Arab states with ties to Israel -- including Egypt and Jordan -- would talk with Israel at first, but that if there was Israeli acceptance of the Arab peace plan, that could pave the way for other states, such as Saudi Arabia, to join the talks.

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