- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 27, 2007

JERUSALEM — Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice yesterday announced a commitment by the Israeli and Palestinian leaders to meet every two weeks as a way of building confidence before peace talks.

But, she added, the sides aren’t ready for genuine negotiations and might not reach a final settlement while she is in office.

Miss Rice spoke at the conclusion of a four-day, three-country Middle East mission in which she prodded Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas toward discussions on the political horizon for peace negotiations.

“I think that perhaps the most important thing is that they’ve agreed to talk together,” she said. However, she added, “the time is not now for formal negotiations.”

The tentative signs of progress may influence deliberations at the annual Arab League summit opening today in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, where the United States is hoping a Saudi-drafted regional peace proposal will be made more palatable to Israel.

Washington pressed its Arab allies Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates on the issue at a meeting in Egypt over the weekend. Yesterday, Miss Rice suggested a symbiosis between the Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts and a process of regional reconciliation.

“The Arab states should begin reaching out to Israel — to reassure Israel that its place in the region will be made more, not less, secure by an end to the occupation and the establishment of a Palestinian state; to show Israel that they accept its place in the Middle East,” she said.

“Such bold outreach can turn the Arab League’s words into the basis of active diplomacy.”

Miss Rice has visited the region four times in four months, aiming to convince regional allies that the United States is actively pushing for Middle East peace. The effort is seen as strengthening the moderate Arab states and helping them to contain the growing influence of Iran.

The secretary faces daunting political obstacles, including a newly formed Palestinian unity government that doesn’t recognize Israel, uncontrolled violence in the West Bank and Gaza, the hostage status of Israeli Cpl. Gilad Shalit and Mr. Olmert’s anemic public approval ratings.

With their biweekly meetings, Mr. Olmert and Mr. Abbas will have far more personal contact than any previous Israeli and Palestinian leaders. Miss Rice said the meetings will focus on building mutual confidence by setting up definable benchmarks for progress on security and the passage of goods and people into Gaza.

A spokesman from Mr. Olmert’s office made clear that Israel is not prepared to discuss difficult final-status issues such as Jerusalem, borders and refugees before the release of Cpl. Shalit, who was kidnapped by Hamas militants in June.

Miss Rice said the contact “establishes the framework … so that when we get to negotiations they are on a basis that will actually have a chance to succeed. …

“Now, I can’t tell you if that will happen on our watch or not. We’re going to put everything that we possibly can into making it happen.”

The secretary said she would be joining the talks at times, and holding separate meetings with Mr. Olmert and Mr. Abbas at others.

She also acknowledged for the first time that the November 2005 agreement to open Gaza’s border crossings had not alleviated economic hardship in Gaza.

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