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Rice declares success after Israeli, Palestinian leaders agree to talk

JERUSALEM—Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice came to the Middle East for what was supposed to be the ambitious beginning of a concerted American campaign to resuscitate Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, which have stagnated for six years.

In the end, however, she had to settle for a modest achievement: that Monday's talks were held at all.

For the first time in her tenure, Rice sat down with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. The three agreed to little more than to keep talking.

But that, Rice argued, was enough to declare success.

The meeting took place in the shadow of an unfolding plan by Abbas and Fatah, his moderate party, to form a new Palestinian coalition government with leaders of the rival Hamas movement that's expected to fall short of meeting international demands that it recognize Israel.

That agreement, signed two weeks ago in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, surprised American officials and jeopardized Rice's new initiative. Israeli officials initially suggested that their government might curtail ties to Abbas because the pragmatic leader was aligning with Hamas.

The Bush administration also was weighing how to respond. In the end, Rice said, America decided that its best choice was to continue to support Abbas and press ahead with the meeting, which had been scheduled before he agreed to align with the militant Islamist movement.

"I frankly don't know how long it would have been before they would have talked with each other were it not for the coincidence of this meeting having been scheduled," Rice said after Monday's two-hour talks, which moved from a staid hotel conference room to her suite with panoramic views of the Old City.

When Rice announced the meeting last month, she and her aides said its agenda would be to begin sketching out a "political horizon" for a peace deal that would give both sides a concrete goal to work toward. On Monday, that idea was overshadowed by discussions about the unity government and a long-standing list of unresolved problems, including security and freedom of movement.

Olmert voiced his frustration with the latest developments, but made it clear that he will continue to work with Abbas.

"We are not willing to create a situation in which we have no channels of communications with the Palestinians. That would be a grave mistake," Olmert said after the meeting. "But we will not compromise the principle that we will not recognize or have dealings with bodies that do not accept the principles that are foundation of any further discussions."

Palestinian negotiators hailed Rice's vow to play a bigger role in future negotiations.

"The involvement of the United States is an essential thing for both of us, and I think the acceptance of both sides to have the serious involvement of the United States is one basic achievement," said Yasser Abed-Rabbo, one of Abbas' chief negotiators.

After heading to Jordan on Tuesday to consult with King Abdullah, Rice will travel to Berlin for meetings with leaders from Russia, the European Union and the United Nations that will examine how the group of four, known as the Quartet, will deal with the new regional dynamics.

The Quartet and Israel have refused to provide money or political support to the Palestinian Authority since last February, when Hamas took control of the Palestinian Cabinet after toppling Fatah in parliamentary elections.

Abbas had vowed not to join forces with Hamas unless it accepted international demands to recognize Israel as a neighbor and embrace nonviolence.

But factional street clashes in the Gaza Strip prompted him to sign a unity deal with Hamas. In his talks with Rice, Abbas said the deal was necessary to end the street battles and urged the international community to give the new government time.

Hamas had hoped that the deal would encourage some nations, such as Russia or Germany, to end the yearlong boycott and resume providing crucial international aid to the Palestinian Authority, which the fiscal blockade has crippled.

So far, however, Israel and the United States appear to have persuaded the international community to hold firm.

While there have been no indications that the new Palestinian government will meet the international demands, Abed-Rabbo said Abbas had urged Rice and Olmert not to close the door on the coalition government.

"This is the land where God built everything in six days," he said. "Progress has been made, and nobody can escape the fact that accepting the conditions of the Quartet in very clear terms will be the end of the road. Maybe not day six, maybe in three or four, but absolutely it is possible."

Abed-Rabbo also said Abbas wouldn't agree to establishing a new Palestinian government until Hamas had addressed one of Israel's major demands: freeing Gilad Shalit, an Israeli corporal whom Palestinian militants captured last summer during an attack on an Israeli military outpost on the Gaza Strip border.

"There will be no government without the release of Shalit," he said.

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(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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