Rice Urges Wider Talks on Palestinian State

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice concludes another round of talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders. She urged the two sides to broaden their dialogue on the creation of a Palestinian state.

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U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice wrapped up her latest Middle East trip today with little discernable progress toward reviving peace talks. Speaking after talks with Palestinian leaders in the West Bank, Rice called for a wider dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians. She also defended a Middle East peace conference President Bush has announced for the fall.

NPR's Eric Westervelt reports from Ramallah.

ERIC WESTERVELT: Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas wants any new talks with Israel to tackle the big final status issues of statehood, borders, Jerusalem and refugees. After meeting Jewish leaders last night and today with Palestinians in the West Bank, Secretary Rice said Israeli leader Ehud Olmert told her he's ready to broaden the discussion.

Secretary CONDOLEEZZA RICE (U.S. Department of State): Prime Minister Olmert has said that he is ready to discuss fundamental issues that will lead to the establishment of a Palestinian state. And I think there should be a deepening of the dialogue between the Palestinians and the Israelis on all of the issues that - will lead ultimately to the founding of a Palestinian state.

WESTERVELT: But one senior Israeli official deemed it to early to tackle the big thorny issues of Jerusalem and refugees. Israeli officials have talked, instead, about discussing more general agreed principles on statehood. Secretary Rice said she hopes the Middle East peace meeting planned for sometime this fall will offer a chance for a more expansive dialogue between the two sides. President Bush announced the meeting last month.

On her trip, Rice want tentative backing from Saudi Arabia for the peace conference, though it's not clear the kingdom would send a representative. So far, no date, place, list of invitees, or agenda have been set for the conference, a gathering Secretary Rice insisted today would be substantive and meaningful.

Sec. RICE: The President of the United States has no desire to call people together for photo op. This is to call people together so that we can really advance Palestinian statehood.

WESTERVELT: In the West Bank today, Rice signed a framework agreement to provide some $80 million in American funding to build and train President Abbas' security forces. A senior U.S. official traveling with Rice said an initial $10 million would be delivered soon. Both Rice and Abbas today, again, ruled out talking to Hamas, the Islamist group, which forcibly took control of all the Gaza Strip in June. The White House lists Hamas as a terrorist group. Rice says Hamas hasn't lived up to international norms, including recognition of Israel and renunciation of violence.

President Abbas today said he'd only consider a dialogue with his rivals if the Islamists apologize to the Palestinian people and take other measures of contrition.

President MAHMOUD ABBAS (Palestinian National Authority): (Through translator) Hamas committed a big crime and made a coup against the legitimacy of the Palestinians. We cannot have any dialogue with anyone in this group.

WESTERVELT: But senior Hamas leader Ahmed Yousef, interviewed in Gaza, warns that the Israeli and Western policy of trying to isolate Hamas will backfire.

Mr. AHMED YOUSEF (Senior Political Leader, Hamas): If I pressure you in the core, now, you have to do something. And they're going to keep squeezing Gaza. I don't know what - I can't predict what's going to happen here.

WESTERVELT: The Hamas official says, quote, "now, we're giving politics a chance. But if politics fail, we'll have to resort to other things - the old tactics," end quote. For years, Hamas launched deadly suicide bombers inside Israel.

Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Ramallah.

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