Rice meets Abbas for first time since Gaza seizure

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was to meet Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas on Thursday on the final leg of a regional tour seeking to rally support for a Middle East peace conference later this year.

Rice meets Abbas for first time since Gaza seizure
It was her first visit to the region since Hamas seized control of the Gaza Strip in mid-June, splitting the Palestinians into two entities, with the Western-backed Abbas ruling the West Bank and the Islamists controlling Gaza.

Rice went straight into a meeting with Palestinian premier Salam Fayyad after arriving in Ramallah and was to meet Abbas shortly afterwards.

"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," she said on Wednesday when she met senior Israeli leaders.

The Palestinians were to ask Rice to apply pressure on Israel to hand over security control in West Bank cities to boost Abbas in his standoff with Hamas, which is boycotted by the West.

"Our plan is to deploy Palestinian security forces in all the cities of the West Bank and this needs coordination with Israel," information minister Riyad al-Malki said.

But Israel insists that the Palestinians needed to clamp down on militants before any transfer of security control.

"Israel set the condition that security guarantees must be provided before such transfer of security control," a government spokesman told AFP on Wednesday.

Rice and Fayyad are to sign a "framework agreement for security assistance" for more than 80 million dollars (63 million euros) that the United States has pledged to boost the defence needs of the Palestinians.

The Palestinians were also to ask Rice to push Israel to remove the estimated 500 roadblocks that severely hamper the freedom of movement in the West Bank and are one of the most potent symbols of the four-decade occupation.

The Israeli security establishment opposes removing the roadblocks, saying they are needed in order to prevent militants from launching attacks on the Jewish state.

The Palestinians also want Israel to agree to discuss "core issues" -- the most thorniest problems in their conflict such as the status of Jerusalem and borders.

But the Israelis have been resisting, saying Abbas needed to clamp down on militants first.

According to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, Olmert proposed to Rice that the two sides draft "agreed principles" for establishing a Palestinian state as a basis for the peace conference to be hosted by the United States, probably in September.

While in Saudi Arabia, Rice managed to secure a positive response to the conference from the regional Arab heavyweight, which is behind a recently revived 2002 Arab-Israeli peace plan.

"Should we get an invitation to attend the conference we will look at it very closely and very hard," Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal said at a news conference with Rice in Jeddah.

Saudi Arabia -- which does not have diplomatic ties with Israel -- has not attended peace talks involving the Jewish state for more than a decade.

US officials said they detected a new sense of hope in the region for the settlement of the Palestinian question, which has dogged Middle East security for decades.

"People do realise that there is an opportunity here and discussions now should take advantage of that and how to maximize the results," one senior US administration official said.

Rice travelled with Defence Secretary Robert Gates to the Middle East, with the pair visiting Egypt and Saudi Arabia together before splitting up: Gates went on to Kuwait, while Rice headed to Israel and the Palestinian territories.

Saudi Arabia said it would send a diplomatic mission to Baghdad to explore reopening its embassy. That would represent a significant boost of ties between the Sunni authorities in Riyadh and the Shiite-led government in Baghdad.

But the have Saudis rejected recent US criticism it was not doing enough to help stabilise Iraq.

Rice was to leave for the United States after her meetings in Ramallah.

AFP
Last Mod: 02 Ağustos 2007, 11:42
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