Palestine to resume peace talks

March 5, 2008 7:58:41 AM PST
Visiting Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice persuaded Palestinians to return to peace talks with Israel Wednesday after a brief suspension over a deadly offensive against Gaza militants barraging southern Israel with rockets. Rice announced the resumption of talks at a news conference in Jerusalem and shortly afterward, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, speaking from his West Bank headquarters, confirmed it.

Abbas suspended talks earlier this week to protest Israel's military crackdown on Gaza, which Palestinian officials say has killed more than 120 people. Earlier Wednesday, Abbas said he would not return to the talks until Israel reaches a truce with Hamas militants in Gaza. But under pressure from Rice, he backed down and agreed to restart the negotiations.

"The peace process is a strategic choice and we have the intention of resuming the peace process," Abbas said in a statement.

Abbas runs a moderate government in the West Bank that rivals the Islamic militant Hamas regime in Gaza. Hamas violently took power over Gaza from Abbas' Fatah faction in June.

Rice pointedly did not call for a truce and urged Hamas to halt its rocket fire. At the same time, she urged Israel to do its best to protect Palestinian civilians caught in the crossfire.

"There are enemies of peace that will always try to hold hostage the Palestinian cause and the future of the Palestinian people for their own state," she said. "And Hamas, which in effect holds the people of Gaza hostage in their hands is now trying to make the path to a Palestinian state hostage to them. We cannot permit that to happen."

Abbas did not say when talks would resume. But Rice said that next week, a U.S. general would come to the region to prod peacemaking. A senior U.S. official said Rice had agreed to dispatch Lt. Gen. William Fraser III as a gesture to the Palestinians, who hope for American pressure on Israel.

In January, President Bush appointed Fraser to monitor both sides' compliance with the road map, a milestone-based plan that has been the basis of talks that resumed in November after a seven-year break.

With the announcement of peace talks resuming, Rice capped her Middle East mission with a success and then left for Europe. Rice said both sides need to carry out road map obligations. The plan's initial stage calls on Israel to stop settlement activity and obliges the Palestinians to clamp down on militants. Abbas, however, controls only the West Bank and has no influence over Hamas-ruled Gaza.

Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert formally relaunched peace talks at a U.S.-hosted summit in Annapolis, Md., last November, pledging to forge a final peace agreement by the end of the year.

But the negotiations, restarted after seven years of fighting, have been plagued by violence and continued Israeli construction on lands the Palestinians claim for a future state.

Tensions peaked over the past week after Gaza militants extended the range of their rocket fire closer to Israel's center, and Israel struck back with an assault that Gaza officials say killed more than 120 Palestinians, including dozens of civilians. Three Israelis have also been killed.

Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum criticized Abbas' reversal. "Abu Mazen is a weak man, who couldn't protect the Palestinian people," he said, using Abbas' nickname. "America and Israel don't take him into account, but only use him as a tool to pass their plans on the Palestinians."

Olmert convened his Security Cabinet to discuss the Gaza situation. His office said the officials had pledged to continue battling Hamas while moving forward with peace talks with Abbas. Olmert also left the door open to an unofficial truce with Hamas. "If there is no rocket fire at Israel, there won't be Israeli attacks on Gaza," he told reporters.

Rice initially had planned to visit the region to prod along peace efforts, but last week it became clear that she would be called upon to put out the latest fire.

Confidence-building measures have been critical to the peacemaking, and Rice said Wednesday that "we do need to have improvements on the ground."

She said improvements should take place both in Abbas' West Bank stronghold as well as Gaza. Abbas has repeatedly called on Israel to remove the hundreds of checkpoints it maintains in the West Bank - a measure Israel says is needed for security.

Israel imposed a blockade on Gaza after the Hamas takeover, has let in only humanitarian supplies, deepening the misery in the already impoverished territory. Egypt has also closed its border with Gaza.

Rice said she would send her Mideast envoy, David Welch, to Egypt to discuss security and humanitarian issues in Gaza. Rice met with Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni Wednesday. Livni said the two sides had agreed at the November peace conference that Israel would conduct negotiations with the moderate Palestinian leadership in the West Bank while "meeting the challenge" in the Gaza Strip.

Hamas cannot be allowed to dictate the pace of negotiations, she said, and gently chided her Palestinian colleagues for halting the talks. She said Israel continued talks after a Palestinian suicide bombing in southern Israel last month and an Israeli man was killed in a Hamas rocket attack last week.

"Peace negotiations are not a gift that somebody gives the other. It's a mutual interest, a mutual aspiration and a mutual dream of our two peoples," she said.

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AP correspondent Mohammed Daraghmeh contributed to this article from Ramallah.

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