JERUSALEM — Palestinian leaders on Tuesday rebuffed Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's efforts to kick-start peace talks as Israel warned that more violence may be just over the horizon.
Rice returned to the Middle East on a 32-hour diplomatic damage-control mission to keep alive the Bush administration's hopes of brokering a peace deal by year's end.
Peace talks skidded to a halt on the eve of Rice's arrival after an exceptionally bloody Israeli military campaign in the Gaza Strip that left more than 110 people dead.
Standing alongside Rice after talks Tuesday, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas politely ignored her public prodding to resume negotiations with Israel.
Israeli leaders are warning that the scaled-back military action may be little more than a lull in the government's attempt to quash the power of the militant Islamist group Hamas in Gaza.
"We are going to change the rules of this game," Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni told diplomats Monday. "We are not going to play according to their rules. We are not willing to accept this equation anymore."
During stops in Cairo, Egypt, and Ramallah, West Bank, Rice sought to assuage Palestinian anger over the Israeli operation by publicly, though politely, chiding Israel.
"It is extremely important that they remember that there has to be a day after, a partner to work with, and that innocent people who have the bad fortune to have to live under Hamas control should not be subject to injury and death," Rice said with Abbas by her side. "There should really be a strong effort to spare innocent life."
Once Rice heads off on Wednesday to a NATO summit in Brussels, Belgium, however, many expect the deadly fighting to resume.
"The continuation of rocket fire will lead to the continuation of our actions, even with higher intensity," Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak warned in a speech Tuesday.
With each round, Israel appears to be moving closer to a major invasion of the Gaza Strip. In a bid to end the near-daily rocket fire, Israel has used everything from artillery barrages to assassinations of key militants.
Last week, after Gaza militants unleashed their first concentrated barrage on the Israeli city of Ashkelon, Israel sent hundreds of soldiers into Gaza. More than 110 Palestinians, including 25 minors, and two Israeli soldiers were killed before Israel pulled back. Nearly half the Palestinians were killed on Saturday, making it the deadliest day in the conflict in years.
If Gaza militants target Ashkelon again in coming days, Israeli leaders have made it clear that Hamas should prepare for the worst.
"Israel left the Gaza Strip not in order to come back," Livni told the diplomats. "But we may find ourselves in a situation that we have no other alternative."
Israel took control of Gaza from Egypt during the 1967 Mideast war and withdrew its troops only in 2005.
Even now, Israeli leaders have reservations about sending large numbers of soldiers back into Gaza without a clear plan for getting out quickly.
However, Israel has options short of invasion that could pressure Hamas.
Israel could proceed with plans to cut off electricity for some of Gaza's 1.5 million residents. Barak has asked the state attorney for guidance on when Israel can launch airstrikes on civilian areas that militants are using to fire rockets. As it did during a Palestinian uprising, Israel also could target Hamas' political leaders.
One option that's been shunted aside is negotiating a cease-fire with Hamas, which won parliamentary elections a year ago and took control of Gaza last June.
The idea has been gaining credence among Israeli's intelligentsia.
Among those Israelis who are calling for talks with Hamas are former spy chief Ephraim Halevy and former National Security Chief Giora Eiland. The idea of talking to the militant group also received surprising support from two-thirds of the Israeli public in a recent poll.
"Some people say you have to go to war, and there are others who say if you don't go to war, maybe it is better to speak with them," said Camil Fuchs, the Tel Aviv University statistician who conducted the poll. "If it won't help, it won't hurt, so let's try it. We've tried everything else."
Israeli and American diplomats say, however, that talking to Hamas would undermine Abbas and make it more difficult to secure a peace deal.
"The moment Israel negotiates with Hamas, the moment I enter the room with Hamas members to negotiate any kind of treaty, it means killing the other channel," Livni said.
The Palestinian rebuff undercut the purpose of Rice's trip. When a reporter noted that this was her 13th visit to the region, Rice responded; "Did you say 13? That's not supposed to be a lucky number. So I better come back soon."
McClatchy Newspapers 2008