Rice Meets Israelis, Palestinians

As U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice wraps up her trip to the Middle East, she meets separately with Israeli and Palestinian officials.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is in Jerusalem, struggling to fix a peace process that is in shambles. She's met today separately with Israeli and Palestinian officials.

The Palestinians broke off talks with Israel at the weekend in protest at Israel's incursions into Gaza. Israel is trying to stop rocket attacks from there, but the Israeli offensive has left more than 120 Palestinians dead.

NPR's Michele Kelemen joins us from Jerusalem. And Michele, Rice has just finished meeting the Israeli defense and foreign ministers today. Any sign they'll agree to any kind of cease fire in Gaza?

MICHELE KELEMEN: No, not really. I mean, Secretary Rice said they'll be calm when Hamas stops rocket attacks into Israel. She said the enemies of peace shouldn't be able to hold hostage the Palestinian cause. And she was speaking alongside Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who said that the Israelis are going to continue their two-tracked approach, talking to the pragmatic leaders - meaning Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian authority president - but dealing with Hamas, which she said is like a small army now. She said we have to answer our citizens, who are coming under attack. That was her quote.

MONTAGNE: And when it comes to the Palestinian authority, is it even possible politically for it to restart their talks with Israel while people are dying in Gaza?

KELEMEN: Well, it's interesting. Secretary Rice said that she's gotten signals from both sides that they're ready for talks again. She said that a cease fire isn't a condition for Abbas to send his negotiators back to talk. But US officials also have said that they understand that it's not politically feasible, perhaps, right now. There were so many deaths over the weekend, 120 people were killed. And on the front page of papers today, there were pictures of a one month old in Gaza, who was one of the latest victims of this violence.

MONTAGNE: Any concessions from the Israelis that might help Abbas resume talks?

KELEMEN: Secretary Rice said she did talk today. She met earlier with the defense minister, Ehud Barak, and then she met with Tzipi Livni, and she did again appeal for the need to ease up on check points and restrictions for Palestinians in the West Bank. She said life has to improve for Palestinians, obviously, so they could see that there's a course - that there's a reason to negotiate. She's also been trying to get the Israelis and Egyptians to work together on humanitarian issues in Gaza to get humanitarian aid in there and deal with that part of it. And she's sending her assistant secretary of state, David Welch, back to Egypt.

MONTAGNE: Now both the US and Israel are anxious to sideline Hamas, and that's one the reasons that they've refused any contact with Hamas. But the problem there is that it leaves Hamas able to disrupt the peace process more or less at will.

KELEMEN: That's right in that, you know, Tzipi Livni just said, when she was asked about that, she said, unfortunately, that's the case. But they didn't show any sign that they're changing that. She said that we can't have Gaza be a terror state, and we can't have it be a failed state. So they didn't show any sign that they're shifting policy on that end.

MONTAGNE: Even if you take Hamas and this latest Gaza crises out of the equation, has any real progress been made on the agreements Israel and Palestinians made in Annapolis last fall?

KELEMEN: Well, they say that they're addressing all of the core issues that are between them. Secretary Rice even said she thinks the talks are going well. You hear the Bush administration being very optimistic that the two sides can reach a deal by the end of the year. But, you know, without Gaza, how do you do it? That's the big question, and it's a big unanswered question still.

MONTAGNE: Michele, thank you.

KELEMEN: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Michele Kelemen, speaking from Jerusalem.

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