Rice, Abbas call for greater peace efforts

March 4, 2008 9:28:44 AM PST
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas declared Tuesday that "peace and negotiations are our strategic choice" but fell short of announcing a resumption of peace talks that his government cut off after an upsurge in fighting between Israel and Hamas-ruled Gaza. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice exhorted Israel to "spare innocent life," though she said it has a right to defend itself against Hamas rockets. "I call on the Israeli government to halt its aggression so the necessary environment can be created to make negotiations succeed, for us and for them, to reach the shores of peace in 2008," Abbas said. He was referring to the goal - stated at a U.S.-sponsored Mideast peace conference in November - of reaching an Israeli-Palestinian peace treaty by the end of the year.

Abbas made his comments in a joint news conference with Rice, who also was holding talks Tuesday with Israeli leaders.

Abbas' public comments were a disappointment for the United States, which had hoped for a firmer commitment to renew negotiations launched by the Bush administration at a conference in Annapolis, Md. Rice looked on, lips pursed, as Abbas called Israel's action unjustified "under any pretext."

In Washington, President Bush said Tuesday that he remains optimistic there will be a Mideast deal by the end of his presidency.

After a meeting at the White House with Jordan's King Abdullah II, Bush said, "This is a process that always two steps forward and one step back. We just need to make sure that it's just one step back." He noted that Rice was pushing the Israeli and Palestinian leadership to resume talks.

Rice said that Israel must have the right to defend itself, but added that she will make the case to Israelis that they should make "a very strong effort to spare innocent life" in Gaza.

Earlier, she said that walking away from talks plays into the hands of militants, and Rice blamed Palestinian Hamas radicals for provoking an Israeli military onslaught in the Gaza Strip. The campaign has derailed an already troubled U.S-backed drive for peace terms this year.

"Negotiations are going to have to be able to withstand the efforts of rejectionists to upset them, to create chaos and violence, so that people react by deciding not to negotiate, " Rice said in Egypt at the start of two days of efforts to rescue negotiations. "That's the game of those who don't want to see a Palestinian state established."

At the White House, press secretary Dana Perino said that Abbas' comments "were encouraging," though he didn't say he was ready to resume peace talks.

"Obviously there's a lot of tension right now between Israelis and the Palestinians," ¼ said. "We fully recognize that. Secretary Rice is in the region to help them bridge back together."

Perino continued to blame Hamas for inciting the bloodshed. "Unfortunately, so many innocent people are caught up in the violence," she said. "And one of the reactions of the violence is to close in and to decide not to talk. But I think what President Abbas said today to Secretary Rice was that he is willing to try to reach out again, but that Israel has to meet him halfway."

The moderate, U.S.-backed Palestinian leadership in the West Bank suspended peace talks in protest after an Israeli military offensive that killed more than 100 Palestinians in Gaza. That made restoring two-way talks Rice's chief objective for a trip she had planned to check up on the negotiators' progress.

Israel launched the offensive to stop rocket attacks by the Hamas militant groups on nearby Israeli cities, but the assault prompted Abbas to suspend negotiations. Israeli aircraft sent more missiles crashing into Gaza on Tuesday after more rockets were fired on the southern town of Sderot.

"The people who are firing rockets do not want peace," Rice told reporters in Cairo. "They sow instability, that is what Hamas is doing."

Rice backed Israel's right to respond to the rocket fire, but said it must avoid causing civilian casualties.

"The rocket attacks against innocent Israelis in their cities need to stop. This can't go on. No Israeli government can tolerate that," she said. But the Israelis "need to be aware of the effects of these operations on innocent people."

She said Hamas, which took over the Gaza Strip last July, is armed "in part" by Iran and underlined the need for the United States and the West to train and develop the Palestinian security forces loyal to Abbas, whose government controls the West Bank.

"Hamas gets armed by the Iranians and if nobody helps to improve the security capabilities of the legitimate Palestinian Authority security forces. That's not a very good situation," she said at a news conference with Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit.

Rice said she still thinks the two sides can reach a deal for Palestinian statehood this year.

"I do think that negotiations ought to resume as soon as possible," Rice told reporters Monday on her way to the Middle East. "I understand that the situation has been complicated. But the longer the negotiations are not ongoing or the longer that they are suspended, if that's what one wants to call it, the more it is a victory for those who don't want to see a two-state solution."

Rice declined to call for a cease-fire, which many Israelis think would legitimize Hamas and its hold in Gaza. The Mediterranean coastal strip is the smaller, poorer of two Arab tracts that would form an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel.

Gheit, whose country has sought to isolate Hamas, also stopped short of calling for a cease-fire. He said Egypt was seeking to convince Israel "not to resort to excessive use of force.... The imbalance of power (between Hamas and the Israelis) must be taken into account." He said Egypt also urges the Palestinians to halt rocket fire.

Israel said it wants to continue negotiations, but suggested it also may launch a full-scale re-invasion of the Gaza territory it abandoned three years ago.

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