- The Washington Times - Monday, March 26, 2007

JERUSALEM — Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s effort to restart Israeli-Palestinian peace talks stumbled yesterday when Israel balked at a proposal for the United States to hold parallel negotiations with both sides on an eventual peace treaty.

At the same time, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert sounded upbeat about the prospects for a regional peace summit pushed by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

During the course of a day shuttling between Palestinian and Jordanian leaders in Amman and Israeli leaders in Jerusalem, Miss Rice was forced to delay by 12 hours until this morning a statement expected to chart the future of talks aimed at setting up a Palestinian state alongside Israel.

Israel Channel 2 news said that Mr. Olmert won’t discuss Israel’s objections to negotiating thorny final issues, such as the status of Jerusalem, and is uncomfortable with the idea of Miss Rice serving as intermediary with the Palestinians.

Miss Rice tried to fend off the notion that her proposal for parallel talks was overstepping the traditional U.S. mediation role.

“I don’t intend by any means to take control of the Palestinian-Israel bilateral dialogue,” she said.

The secretary of state has made repeated trips to the region in the past six months in an effort to restart Israeli-Palestinian peace talks after a six-year freeze.

The push has been complicated by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ unity agreement with Hamas, which prompted Mr. Olmert to step back from a willingness to discuss substantive issues related to a final peace agreement.

Another concern is that Mr. Olmert is too weak politically to make unpopular concessions.

Still, Miss Rice’s visit has spurred intensified diplomatic activity and appeared to have produced some results as the day proceeded. Under U.S. pressure, Mr. Olmert agreed to sit down with Mr. Abbas for the first time since the Palestinian leader sealed a desperation pact with the militants, a senior U.S. official said late yesterday, according to the Associated Press.

Miss Rice’s efforts this week coincide with Mr. Ban’s first trip to the region as U.N. secretary-general.

At a joint press conference with Mr. Olmert yesterday, Mr. Ban termed the idea of a regional peace summit with Israel, the Arabs and the Quartet of international mediators as “interesting” and “useful.”

Mr. Olmert said he “wouldn’t hesitate” to attend a multilateral peace summit.

Miss Rice is making her diplomatic appeal on the eve of an Arab League summit at which member states are expected to renew a five-year-old peace plan calling for normalized ties with Israel in return for an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and Golan Heights, both taken in the 1967 Six-Day War.

Israel has expressed interest in the Arab plan, but wants revisions such as a softer demand for the return of Palestinian refugees to former homes inside the Jewish state.

After resisting Israel’s requests, Saudi Arabia, which floated the peace offer that served as the basis of the Arab initiative, suggested that changes to the 2002 peace offer might be considered to make it “compatible” with new developments.

“It is expected from us to take notice of new developments, which require additions and developments,” said Prince Saud al-Faisal, the Saudi foreign minister.

“The kingdom is keen that this summit should come out with one Arab voice toward issues of destiny, and in particular the Palestinian issue,” he said.

A regional peace round table could help push bilateral talks between Israelis and the Palestinians toward a conclusion by giving critical Arab support to concessions that the Palestinians will be expected to make on Jerusalem and refugees.

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