- The Washington Times - Monday, January 15, 2007

LUXOR, Egypt — Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said yesterday she will convene a three-way meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in the next few weeks to begin discussions on setting up a Palestinian state.

Miss Rice’s announcement, made after talks with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in the southern city of Luxor, came a day after she pledged deeper U.S. engagement in trying to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“I will soon meet with Prime Minister Olmert and with President Abbas to have discussions about the broad issues on the horizon, so that we can … try and accelerate the ‘road map’ and to move to the establishment of a Palestinian state,” Miss Rice said at a press conference with Egyptian Foreign Minister Aboul Gheit.

The road map is a U.S.-backed and internationally supported peace plan that would lead in three stages to a Palestinian state.

Miss Rice, who is on a Middle East tour, was vague about the timing of the three-way meeting, but a senior State Department official traveling with her said it would most likely take place within three or four weeks.

“This is not just another meeting,” the official told reporters on the flight to Luxor from Tel Aviv. The Israelis and the Palestinians “haven’t sat down for six years to talk about issues as ambitious as looking at what would be necessary to get a Palestinian state.”

Mr. Olmert told lawmakers of his Kadima party in Jerusalem after meeting with Miss Rice in the morning that the trilateral session “will not be a replacement for the bilateral negotiations” with the Palestinians.

Miss Rice said she wanted to use the momentum created by a Dec. 23 meeting between Mr. Olmert and Mr. Abbas but also said she has “no intention of supplanting what is a developing, fruitful channel bilaterally.”

“We will see when American presence is needed,” she said.

The secretary, who came to the region to rally support for President Bush’s plan to send more than 21,000 additional U.S. troops to Iraq, has gone out of her way to assure her hosts that Washington will be more involved in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

“I have heard loud and clear the call for deeper American engagement in these processes,” she said after meeting with Mr. Abbas at his headquarters in the West Bank city of Ramallah on Saturday. “You will have my commitment to do precisely that.”

Miss Rice said the discussions on a Palestinian state will be held “within the context of the road map.” But by jumping to the plan’s third phase — Palestinian statehood — she is effectively bypassing the second phase, which calls for a provisional state with temporary borders.

The moribund first phase called for a halt to Palestinian violence and to Israeli settlement activity. The violence has continued, and Israel’s Housing Ministry said yesterday it will build 44 new residential units in Maale Adumim, the largest settlement in the West Bank.

Israeli officials proposed moving quickly to the second phase in the last days of 2006, but Mr. Abbas made it clear to Miss Rice on Sunday that he would not agree to such an interim arrangement, fearing that any temporary borders might become permanent.

Mr. Gheit said he views the Olmert-Abbasmeeting last month and the proposed session with Miss Rice as part of a “stabilization phase” that would set the stage for true negotiations between the two sides.

He also expressed “support” for Mr. Bush’s Iraq strategy, which would increase U.S. troop levels to about 153,500, and called on the Iraqi government to increase its own forces and do more to quell sectarian violence.

“We are supportive of that plan, because we are hopeful that [it will] ensure the stability, unity and cohesion of the Iraqi government,” Mr. Gheit said.

“We are hopeful that the plan would lead toward the dismantlement of whatever terror organizations, as well as the military militias, that are tormenting the Iraqi scene.”

Miss Rice flew to Saudi Arabia last night and is scheduled to visit Kuwait today.

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