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Rice Presses Palestinian Statehood, with Nod from Obama

The Bush administration is making a last-gasp push for Palestinian statehood — or the nearest it can get to it — with the apparent, quiet encouragement of President-elect Barack Obama.

Israel, on the other hand, may end up balking.

The Quartet — the diplomatic grouping of the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations that is guiding the Israeli-Palestinian talks — pronounced Monday that advances toward Palestinian statehood are “irreversible.” A U.N. Security Council resolution making the same call is in the works.

“The Quartet expressed its considered view that the bilateral negotiations process launched at Annapolis is irreversible and that these negotiations should be intensified in order to put an end to the conflict and to establish as soon as possible the state of Palestine, living side by side in peace and security with Israel,” said the statement that emerged Monday after the foreign minister-level meeting in New York of the members of the Quartet.

“Annapolis” refers to the renewed talks spurred by the Bush administration a year ago in Maryland.

President Bush and U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who attended Monday’s meeting, already have made clear that they want talks to advance as much as possible before the Obama administration takes over next month. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon made clear that this was the intent of the Quartet statement when he read it to reporters.

“A very important progress is under way; we are united in our conviction that it must be continued and intensified in the period ahead,” Ban said. “In this respect we look forward to working closely, from the outset, with the administration of President-elect Obama to achieve the goal of a two-state solution and comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace.”

The statement was to be followed by a Security Council resolution along the same lines co-sponsored by the United States and Russia. Rice suggested the resolution would lend Palestinian statehood the heft of international law.

“What that resolution does is to put the international community on record in believing in the irreversibility of the Annapolis process — bilateral negotiations toward a two-state solution, a comprehensive solution, and the various principles of Annapolis and what the parties have established since then,” she said. “And I believe that that will then add the voice of the international community through its most powerful and its most consequential body — that is, the Security Council — to establish Annapolis as the way — the Annapolis process as the way forward.”

Sources say that Israel is lobbying hard behind the scenes against the resolution, which it regards as premature, but has not formally registered its protest.

Obama, announcing his national security team earlier this month, listed the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks as one of his priorities. Rice suggested that he was on line with the Bush administration’s recent steps.

At the Quartet meeting, Rice said the Bush administration has been and would continue to brief the incoming Obama team on “where we have been in the peace process, what we see its prospects to be.”

“But it would not be appropriate for me to speak for the President-elect and his team for how they will choose to move forward,” the secretary of state said. “I would simply refer you to the words that I myself have heard him speak and that all of you have heard him speak, which is that he puts a high priority on the issue of Middle East peace.”

Rice played down expectations of Palestinian statehood before Jan. 20, but said it was closer then ever.

“They won’t achieve agreement by the end of the year, but they have achieved a good deal of progress in their negotiations, a good deal of progress in the work that is being done on the ground,” she said.

Lame-duck transitions — even between presidents from rival parties — often have been used to push forward controversial initiatives as a means of freeing the incoming president of resistance from Congress or domestic lobbies.

In 1980, after his election defeat to Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter secured the release of the American hostages in Iran in a deal that included unpopular concessions to the Iranians. Reagan, in turn, set in motion U.S. recognition of the Palestine Liberation Organization while he was handing office over to George H.W. Bush in 1988.

The Quartet statement hinted that the Bush team was setting aside other red lines to make way for Obama’s planned policy changes in the region.

The statement “looked forward to an intensification of Israeli-Syrian negotiations” and “supported, in consultation with the parties, an international meeting in Moscow in 2009.”

Both proposals reversed Bush administration policy, which until now refrained from encouraging Israel’s talks with Syria and resisted an increased Russian role in the process.

A clear target of the Quartet statement was Benjamin Netanyahu, the leader of Israel’s opposition Likud Party who looks set to win Feb. 10 elections. Netanyahu has rejected some of the Annapolis tenets, particularly its prescription for Palestinian statehood as soon as possible.

Asked how Netanyahu might deal with this initiative, Rice delivered a diplomatic version of “deal with it:”

“Obviously, Israel will have a prime minister one way or another after February, and the Israeli government will have to chart a course,” she said. “But I believe that the international community will have done what it can do in the strongest possible terms, and that is to put the weight of the Security Council behind not just the two-state solution but a particular process for getting there.”

The Quartet statement also:

* Encouraged the renewal of an Egypt-brokered cease-fire between Israel and Hamas, the terrorist group controlling the Gaza Strip. The three-month cease-fire is due to lapse on Friday and Israel, Egypt and some elements in Hamas want to renew it, while other Hamas figures are opposed.

“In this regard, the Quartet expressed concern that the Egyptian-brokered calm had been challenged, condemned indiscriminate attacks on Israel, and called for an immediate cessation of violence,” it said, referring to the recent intensification of rocket fire from Gaza aimed at Israel’s southern towns. It also expressed its “acute concern regarding the recent increase in the closures of crossing points in response to violence in Gaza, which have limited the range and quantity of basic commodities.” Israel has sequestered Gaza in a bid to stop the rocket fire.

* Praised the Palestinian Authority for introducing security forces in the West Bank towns of Jenin and Hebron after a training program designed and led by U.S. officials. Israeli defense officials have said the program is promising but does not yet adequately confront terrorism.

* Pressed donor nations to fulfill pledges made in Paris earlier this year, when the Palestinian Authority was promised more than $7 billion in funding. Western nations have made good on the pledges while Arab nations are lagging.

* Called on the Palestinians “to continue their efforts to reform the security services and dismantle the infrastructure of terrorism” and “called on Israel to freeze all settlement activities, which have a negative impact on the negotiating environment and on Palestinian economic recovery, and to address the growing threat of settler extremism,” a reference to settler riots earlier this month in the Hebron area.

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