Middle East

Rice Works to Revive Middle East Peace Talks

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Condoleezza Rice walks with Mahmoud Abbas in the Palestinian presidential headquarters. i

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice walks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the Palestinian presidential headquarters in Ramallah on Tuesday in this photo released by the Palestinian Authority. Thaer Ganaim/Palestinian Authority/AP hide caption

toggle caption Thaer Ganaim/Palestinian Authority/AP
Condoleezza Rice walks with Mahmoud Abbas in the Palestinian presidential headquarters.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice walks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the Palestinian presidential headquarters in Ramallah on Tuesday in this photo released by the Palestinian Authority.

Thaer Ganaim/Palestinian Authority/AP

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is trying to salvage the peace process she initiated between the Israelis and Palestinians in Annapolis, Md., last November. Rice went to Cairo, the West Bank and Jerusalem on Tuesday, but she has not come out so far with any commitment that talks can resume.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas suspended contacts with the Israelis to protest a deadly Israeli offensive against Hamas in Gaza over the weekend. As Rice met with Abbas, flags flew at half-staff at the presidential compound in Ramallah in memory of the more than 100 people killed.

"I call on the Israeli government to halt its aggression in order that we can afford the necessary atmosphere to conduct the negotiations," Abbas said.

Abbas twice dodged a question about whether he would return to talks. He made clear that the political negotiations with Israel have to go hand-in-hand with improvements on the ground — a cessation of hostilities in Gaza and an easing of restrictions on Palestinians in the West Bank.

Rice said she will speak with the Israelis about all of it. She studiously avoided calling for a cease-fire. She said Israel has the right to defend itself from Hamas rocket attacks, but urged Israel to try to make sure civilians aren't caught in the crossfire.

"Innocent people who have the bad fortune to have to live under Hamas control should not be subject to injury and death," she said. "There should really be a very strong effort to spare innocent life."

The Bush administration has few options when it comes to dealing with Hamas, and Rice went back to her talking points on that. She said Hamas, which took over Gaza last summer, only wants to sow chaos.

"If, in fact, it is Hamas' intention to destroy the peace process by launching rockets at Israel — if it is their intention to destroy the possibility for the Palestinian people to live in their own state ... then perhaps they should be called to account for doing precisely that," Rice said.

Earlier in the day in Cairo, her Egyptian counterpart, Ahmed Aboul Gheit, provided a bit of a reality check.

"We have to admit Hamas is part of the Palestinian equation and Hamas will have to be tackled with, meaning at a certain point in time down the road, as we make progress ... it will be a must that Hamas will have to be convinced to come on board," he said.

In the meantime, Aboul Gheit called for a cessation of hostilities to allow peace talks to resume.

Although Palestinian officials weren't making any public promises on Tuesday, U.S. officials sounded confident talks will restart soon, once it is politically feasible for Abbas to sit down with his Israeli counterpart.

Israeli officials said they regretted Abbas' decision to cut contacts. Rice had dinner with Israel's prime minister, Ehud Olmert, on Tuesday night and has more talks scheduled for Wednesday as she tries to deal with the biggest challenge to her peace initiative to date.

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