Abbas, Olmert agree to biweekly talks

Not yet at final-status negotiations, Rice says

March 28, 2007|By Chicago Tribune

JERUSALEM -- After three days of intensive diplomacy in the Middle East, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice announced yesterday that the Israeli and Palestinian leaders have agreed to meet every two weeks to discuss day-to-day issues and "a political horizon."

The agreement steps up the pace of face-to-face discussions between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, but falls well short of starting substantive negotiations on the core issues of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

"We are not yet at final-status negotiations," Rice said at a news conference. "These are initial discussions to build confidence between the parties."

Rice's announcement had been postponed from Monday night to yesterday morning because discussions lasted longer than expected. Olmert objected to holding negotiations on the key issues of a final peace agreement: the status of Jerusalem, the borders of a future Palestinian state and whether Palestinian refugees could return to their former lands in Israel.

Abbas has repeatedly called for such negotiations, but Olmert says they are impossible as long as the new Palestinian unity government - a coalition of Abbas' Fatah party and the militant Hamas faction - fails to meet international demands to recognize Israel, renounce violence and accept past agreements.

The Israeli Cabinet decided last week that talks with Abbas would be limited to humanitarian and security issues.

But Rice said that future discussions between the two leaders would go beyond those issues and that she would periodically meet with Abbas and Olmert, separately and together.

"They achieved something that I frankly didn't expect to achieve, which is very regularized meetings between the two of them in which they will talk not just about their specific and more day-to-day issues, but also about a political horizon," she said.

That horizon would be "consistent with the establishment of a Palestinian state in accordance with the road map," Rice said, referring to the U.S.-backed Middle East peace plan.

Rice said the meetings, expected to begin in mid-April, would focus first on more immediate concerns such as easing Israeli restrictions on movement by Palestinians, improving passage through border crossings, and preventing arms smuggling and rocket fire by militants in the Gaza Strip.

Rice's visit came before an Arab League summit today in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, which is expected to relaunch a 2002 diplomatic initiative that offers Israel peace and normal relations in return for a full withdrawal from the territories it captured in the 1967 Middle East war. The initiative also calls for setting up a Palestinian state with east Jerusalem as its capital and a "just solution" to the issue of Palestinian refugees forced out of lands in what is now Israel.

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