Palestinian Official Has High Hopes for Rice Visit

Robert Siegel talks with Palestinian Authority spokesman Riad Malki, minister of foreign affairs and minister of information. Malki talks about the Israeli incursion into Gaza and the collapse of the peace talks with the Israelis. He says he has high hopes that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice can make a difference.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

Next, I spoke with Riad Malki, who is minister of foreign affairs and a minister of information for the Palestinian Authority. Mr. Malki says he has high hopes that Secretary Rice can make a difference.

M: Of course she can. Last night, the Israelis declared that their attack has really ended and they have really withdrawn their troops from northern Gaza. I think this is in advance of Dr. Rice's visit to the area. Anyway, we do see it as a positive development which really will allow Dr. Rice to discuss seriously not only the situation in Gaza, but also to focus on reconvening the negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

SIEGEL: And...

M: And looking into the ideas in other regions there's such process.

SIEGEL: And President Abbas is, as of today, willing and eager to negotiate with Prime Minister Olmert, you're saying. He just...

M: Yes, he is. He always said that he's really very much committed to the peace negotiations with his counterpart, Prime Minister Olmert. But at the same time, you know, he cannot talk about negotiations with the Israelis while Israelis are killing hundreds of civilians in Gaza. We have to wait until the situation has calmed. And until a third party like Dr. Rice comes in in order for President Mahmoud Abbas to convince of his own people, that we should really continue our effort to establish an independent Palestinian state, next to the state of Israel living side-by-side in peace and security.

SIEGEL: Realistically speaking, what is something that Secretary Rice could do or bring about on this particular trip relative to what the circumstances are right now that you could talk about and President Abbas could talk about, the Palestinians say, look, this is what we are getting. This is better than what Hamas is delivering for people in Gaza.

M: Of course. You know, there is a possibility for Dr. Rice to do something very important, very serious and was really trying and what we expect her to do. And I do believe that she might even try it, which is really to work very hard in order to reopen Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt. We do need Palestinian Authority to reopen Rafah crossing and to have our own people on the Palestinian side of the crossing in order to allow people in and out, and this will help us very much to show that, you know, we care about Gaza and that the Palestinian Authority will have a foothold in Gaza.

SIEGEL: Well, how will President Abbas convince the Israelis that his security forces at the border, at Rafah, can be counted on when indeed those might be the very same people who were driven out of Gaza by Hamas?

M: Well, first of all, you know, the Israelis are right now convinced, almost convinced that this is a very good step to bring about an immediate change in Gaza in order really to destabilize Hamas regime and to bring about, you know, a beginning of regime change in Gaza. An agreement was reached in November 2005. What is needed right now is to try to re-implement such an agreement again. All the five parties concerned to the agreement, there is certain coordination among them that this should happen.

The E.U. is willing to bring back their own observers into the crossing. And of course, if that really happens and if the Israelis will be willing to contemplate also the possibility that they will allow the other crossings between Gaza and Israel to be reopened and were the PA will be able to manage and to operate such crossings, then, you know, this will be fantastic because in this case, what happens, we will weaken Hamas grip of Gaza, we will allow the P.A. to have control over Gaza through such crossings, and this will ease the suffering of the people in Gaza...

SIEGEL: But at least, for the crossing between Gaza and Egypt, the Rafah crossing, you think that's an item that actually could be acted on on this visit? It seems possible to you from what you've heard so far.

M: Yes, I think it's possible. You know, we are going to meet tomorrow with Dr. Rice, and this is really one of the issues that we will raise with her.

SIEGEL: Well, Riad Malki, thank you very much for talking with us today.

M: Thank you.

SIEGEL: Mr. Malki is minister of foreign affairs for the Palestinian Authority. He says, as you heard, he hopes for a breakthrough on the subject of the Rafah crossing - it's between Gaza and Egypt - in meetings with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice this week. Earlier, we heard from Mark Regev, spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

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