JERUSALEM (JTA) – Condoleezza Rice is back in the Middle East, her efforts to promote Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation seemingly buoyed by regional concerns over Hamas’ recent takeover of the Gaza Strip.
The U.S. secretary of state arrived Wednesday in Israel bearing a potentially groundbreaking pledge by Saudi Arabia – a major Islamist power broker and client of Washington – to participate in a comprehensive peace conference.
“This is a time to seize opportunities – and it is a time to proceed in a prepared and careful way, as one does not want to miss opportunities because of a lack of preparation – but it is nonetheless a time when we have to take advantage of what is before us,” Rice said after meeting her Israeli counterpart, Tzipi Livni.
Rice also met with Israeli President Shimon Peres, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
On Thursday, on the last leg of her Middle East tour, Rice visited Ramallah for talks with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Salam Fayyad, the Western-backed reformist he appointed prime minister after firing the previous, Hamas-led Cabinet. Rice was bidding to energize talks between the moderate Abbas and Israel as part of a peace push outlined by President Bush in a July 16 speech.
“We do have in the Palestinian territories a government that is devoted to the international principles, the foundational principles for peace, and this is an opportunity that should not be missed,” Rice told reporters before meeting Abbas.
Abbas aides said he told Rice he was ready to draft with Israel a “declaration of principles” for final peace negotiations that would lead to the foundation of a Palestinian state. But Abbas’ authority is effectively limited to the West Bank after rival Hamas Islamists took over the Gaza Strip in a June coup.
Abbas burnished his reputation as a pragmatist by vociferously breaking with Hamas after the coup.
Olmert, his popularity hard hit by the setbacks of last year’s Lebanon war, has advanced cautiously, approving moves to build up Fatah forces in the West Bank while balking at the idea of binding negotiations on ultimate Palestinian statehood at this stage.
“Sometimes it is not wise to put the most sensitive issues first,” Livni said at a news conference when asked about Abbas’ desire to discuss final-status issues of borders, the rival national claims on Jerusalem and the fate of Palestinian refugees.
But Livni added that “Israel is not going to miss this opportunity. We are not going to miss the opportunity to promote dialogue with Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian government.”
Faced with a weakened Abbas in the West Bank and the diehard hostility of Gaza under Hamas, Olmert has sought broader peace
initiatives, invoking a Saudi proposal for comprehensive Arab recognition of Israel in exchange for its withdrawal from all territory captured in the 1967 Six-Day War.
Though Olmert has frustrated the Arab world by voicing misgivings at the idea of a full pullout, the Saudis told Rice in Riyadh earlier Wednesday that they would be willing to attend an as-yet unscheduled peace conference that Bush wants to host in the fall.
“When we get an invitation from the minister to attend, when this takes place, we will discuss it and we will make sure that we attend,” Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal said, referring to Rice. State Department officials said invitations had yet to be issued.
But the Saudi prince also said Israel must be willing to respond to “pressures” from the Arab world to make concessions in terms
of territory and resolving the Palestinian refugee issue.
Olmert, who met Rice for dinner, welcomed the idea of the conference.
“This meeting can grant an umbrella for the bilateral talks between Israel and the Palestinians,” his office said in a statement.
The sudden cooperativeness by Saudi Arabia may have come in response to Washington’s decision to sell it billions of dollars worth of advanced weaponry as a bullwark against an ascendant Iran. Though details of a sale have not been released, it is estimated to be worth about $20 billion.
That deal, as well as boosted U.S. defense aid to Egypt, has stirred concern in Israel, but Rice made clear that the Bush
administration remained committed to preserving the Jewish state’s military superiority in the region. The Bush proposal also includes $30 billion in defense aid to Israel over the next 10 years.
In what could be his last Israeli-Palestinian peace initiative as president, much remains before Bush can announce a place and time for the fall conference.
Tony Blair, the new envoy for the Quartet of major mediators – the United States, European Union, United Nations and Russia – in September will put together an assessment on the state of the peace process and recommendations for taking it forward. The assessment will be debated by the Quartet heads later that month.
What happens next could also be colored by Israeli domestic politics. A commission of inquiry into the Lebanon war is expected to issue a final report by October that could call for Olmert’s resignation, though he has vowed to stay on.