- The Washington Times
Friday, August 3, 2007

RAMALLAH, West Bank — Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice yesterday pushed Israel and the Palestinians to discuss all issues leading to a Palestinian state, as she sought backing for a international peace conference later this year.

Speaking alongside Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in her first visit since Hamas’ takeover of the Gaza Strip, she said that even though the details of a regional meeting were not finalized, there was agreement that it should mark a concrete step toward peace.

“The president of the United States has no desire to call people together for a photo op,” Miss Rice told reporters at Mr. Abbas’ headquarters in the West Bank.

She added that there is a need for “a deepening of the dialogue between the Palestinians and the Israelis on all of the issues that will lead ultimately to the founding of a Palestinian state.”

Mr. Abbas has repeatedly called for an immediate resumption of negotiations on a final peace treaty, while Israelis refuse to negotiate until the Palestinian Authority reins in militants.

At the Ramallah press conference, Miss Rice and Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad signed agreements on $80 million in U.S. aid to help the Palestinians reform their security services.

Miss Rice declined to specify exactly what topics Israel is willing to raise with the Palestinians.

Her remarks came a day after Saudi Arabia expressed interest in attending the Middle East peace conference first called for by President Bush last month.

However, the Saudis, whose participation in open talks with Israel would be unprecedented, also demand that the conference deal with “substantive matters of peace.”

Israel’s Ha’aretz newspaper reported that an Israeli Cabinet minister close to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and other officials support talks on a set of principles for reaching final agreement on the thorny issues of borders, the status of Jerusalem and the fate of Palestinian refugees who left the infant state of Israel during the 1948 war.

Mr. Bush last month proposed an international conference in an effort to jump-start moribund talks, and as a way to bring together Israel and moderate Arab regimes.

“The most important thing is we produce results and we know what the endgame is — then we can reach agreement on the stages of implementation,” Mr. Abbas said.

Israel Radio reported that the conference is expected to be held in Washington in November.

The conference plan evokes comparisons to the 1991 peace parley in Madrid, which was convened by Mr. Bush’s father, and marked the first time Israel sat alongside Palestinian representatives.

The Palestinians are divided between Mr. Abbas’ Fatah party, which dominates the West Bank, and Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip.

Miss Rice defended the U.S. boycott of Hamas even though the Islamic militants came to power in democratic elections.

Although chosen by the Palestinian people, Hamas flouted international norms by rejecting existing peace agreements and refusing to recognize Israel’s right to exist, she said.

Mr. Abbas, who was also democratically elected, called Hamas’ takeover of the Gaza Strip “criminal” and said he wouldn’t speak to them unless they apologized for the violence and restore control over Palestinian Authority compounds to the Fatah-dominated security services.

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