- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 2, 2007

RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) — Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice assured Palestinian leaders today that a U.S.-sponsored Mideast peace conference this fall is aimed at getting them closer to establishing an independent state and that Israel is ready to discuss ways to achieve that.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, during a meeting with Miss Rice, also signaled willingness to work on a declaration of principles as a step toward a full peace deal. Up to now, the Palestinians have insisted on talks toward a peace treaty with no interim steps.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert floated the idea of a declaration of principles last week, but Mr. Abbas had not commented on it until today.

Miss Rice met with Mr. Abbas at his headquarters in the West Bank city of Ramallah and signed an agreement granting the Palestinians $80 million for reform of their security services, a crucial issue in the Fatah-Hamas power struggle.

Mr. AbbasFatah forces fell surprisingly quickly before an onslaught in Gaza last month from the rival Palestinian militant group Hamas. Restructuring and retraining Fatah-linked forces in the West Bank is seen as critical to keep Hamas at bay there.

Miss Rice said she is likely to be back in the region before the international peace conference planned for the fall.

Hamas denounced the latest show of U.S. support for its rival Mr. Abbas.

Rice did not come to the region to establish a Palestinian state, as she and her master Bush claimed, but instead she came to support one Palestinian party against another and to support the Zionist occupation, said Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri.

Mr. Abbas fired the Hamas-led government after the Islamic militant group’s violent takeover of Gaza in June, and he installed a Cabinet of moderates.

In a joint news conference today with Mr. Abbas, Miss Rice said President Bush wants to see progress toward Palestinian statehood at the upcoming conference.

Miss Rice said regional leaders, including those in Saudi Arabia, told her during her current Mideast swing that the conference must deal with issues of substance.