- The Washington Times - Monday, February 19, 2007

JERUSALEM — Israeli and Palestinian leaders sat down yesterday for the first comprehensive peace talks in six years and emerged with a promise to continue the negotiations in spite of daunting problems ahead.

The two-hour meeting, brokered by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, produced no immediate breakthroughs but will allow Washington to show its Arab allies it is working to resolve one of the region’s toughest problems.

As expected, the summit was overshadowed by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ decision last week to form a coalition government with the militant group Hamas, which steadfastly refuses to renounce violence or recognize Israel.

“The real value here was that they sat down to talk with each other pretty early in this process,” Miss Rice told reporters after the meeting at the luxurious David Citadel Hotel.

Given Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s reluctance to deal with any Palestinian government that includes Hamas, Miss Rice said, “I frankly don’t know how long it might have been before they would have talked with each other were it not for the coincidence of this meeting having been scheduled.”

A communique issued after the summit offered few details about the talks, which were described in diplomatic terms as “useful and productive.” But Miss Rice said she would return to the region soon, and that the bilateral talks would continue in coming weeks.

Frustrated by years without progress on the U.S.-backed “road map” peace plan, Mr. Olmert and Mr. Abbas had agreed to begin discussing the political “horizon” — an allusion to principles that would underpin any final peace deal.

But hopes for progress were dimmed by Mr. Abbas’ Saudi-brokered unity government deal with Hamas, which failed even to acknowledge international demands that the Palestinian administration recognize Israel, renounce violence and honor past agreements.

The omission took the United States by surprise and led some Israelis to call for Mr. Olmert to boycott the meeting.

Nevertheless, Miss Rice said the two leaders had been able to air their concerns in a candid, respectful atmosphere. The three stepped onto a balcony at one point to view the Old City together and later shared lunch with aides and ministers.

Mr. Olmert reassured members of his Kadima party afterward that there would be no easing of the three international demands. “We would not recognize any government that won’t meet these obligations, and we won’t cooperate with such a government or its ministers,” he said.

But he said Israel would continue to be in contact with the Palestinian Authority to ease humanitarian conditions and to coordinate the fight against terrorist groups. The Palestinian territories have been hard hit by a cutoff in international aid since Hamas formed a government last February.

Mr. Abbas reportedly appealed to the U.S. and Israel to withhold judgment on the new Palestinian government. The Palestinians have argued that Hamas’ agreement to sit in a unity government while Mr. Abbas negotiates peace with Israel marks an important evolution among the Islamic militants.

Any progress on final status talks, which would boost Palestinian confidence in negotiations, is thought to strengthen Mr. Abbas in his power struggle with Hamas.

“We view this meeting as a beginning and not an end,” said Palestinian spokesman Saeb Erekat. “The meeting was not supposed to wave a magic wand to solve all the problems.”

The summit also helps the Bush administration to show its Arab allies that it is doing its best to bring the sides together. Miss Rice said last month she had gotten the message “loud and clear” that Washington had to do more to encourage talks between the Israelis and Palestinians.

The sides last talked about peace in 2001 during the final days of the Clinton administration and the beginning of the Palestinian uprising.

The U.S. introduced the road map near the peak of the violence in mid-2003, but the Israelis and Palestinians alike failed to follow through on the series of parallel confidence-building measures.

Some observers say that after six years without talks, a mere return to continuing negotiations would be a significant achievement.

“If there is good will and there is a confidence-building process, we might not reach a comprehensive peace, but we could get back on track,” said Mohammed Dajani, a political science professor at Al Quds University.

“At least the present administration could take the credit for going from a state of confrontation and violence to dialogue.”

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