- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 27, 2007

12:28 p.m.

JERUSALEM (AP) - Israeli and Palestinian leaders have agreed to meet every two weeks to discuss day-to-day issues, a small step in a quickening diplomatic pace that could lead to talks on a final peace settlement, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice announced today.

After shuttling between the two sides for the past three days, Miss Rice also said that an American general serving as her security envoy will try to set benchmarks for a cease-fire, including halting rocket fire from Gaza and improving the flow of Palestinian travelers and goods through Israeli crossings.

“The Israelis and the Palestinians are taking the initial step on the path to peace,” Miss Rice said. “The American role will include helping them to overcome obstacles, develop new ideas and rally international support for their efforts.”

Miss Rice said the first talks between the two leaders will be on practical questions, not the so-called “final status” issues defining peace and security between Israel and an independent Palestine. But she did not rule out formal negotiations on those hard questions before President Bush leaves office in less than two years.

The most difficult issues dividing Israel and the Palestinians include the borders of an eventual Palestinian state, the fate of disputed Jerusalem and the rights of Palestinians and their descendants who left land when Israel was formed in 1948.

Miss Rice praised Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas for flexibility and resolve, although both leaders have balked at making overtures suggested by the United States.

“They achieved something, which is the very regularized meetings between the two of them, in which they will not just talk about their day-to-day issues, but also about a political horizon,” Miss Rice said, speaking at a news conference in Jerusalem.

A senior Israeli government official said that for now, Mr. Olmert will only talk to Mr. Abbas about security and humanitarian issues, as well as a “general political horizon,” which was not further defined by Mr. Rice or Israeli officials. Mr. Olmert will not discuss specifics, such as the borders of a future Palestinian state, said the official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Miss Rice called on Arab states to hold contacts with Israel, and said peacemaking was made “more complex” by Hamas’ presence in the government with Abbas. Israel, the United States and the European Union count Hamas as a terror group.

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