U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice yesterday lowered expectations for today's trilateral summit in Jerusalem, saying: "What I would consider a success tomorrow is that we have gotten started."

"The two parties have not talked about a horizon for a very long time. And we have now the complications of being in an uncertain time, in an interim time before the Palestinian [unity] government is formed," Rice explained in an interview with Haaretz yesterday, the day before her summit meeting with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas.

Rice said the dialogue with Abbas should continue, but also stressed that the new Palestinian unity government, in which his Fatah movement will participate, must abide by the Quartet's conditions - recognizing Israel, renouncing terror and honoring previous Israeli-Palestinian agreements - in order to obtain American recognition.

Although the Mecca agreement, which forms the basis for the new unity government, does not include these elements, Rice nevertheless justified her decision to go ahead with the summit. "There are people who said to me, 'Why don't you wait? Wait until the government is formed and then at least you will know what you are dealing with.' I said that I thought this was an especially important time to talk so that we can talk about what has happened and how we deal with the current situation, so that we can talk about the importance of continuing to make progress on some of the agreements that are already there.

"It is a complicated time, but as I said last night, if I waited for an uncomplicated time in the Middle East, I am not sure I would ever get on an airplane," she said. "Even in this complicated time, it is important to deal with those Palestinians who do accept" the Quartet's conditions. Abbas, she noted, "not only accepts them, he just reiterated them a couple of days ago, and I think it is a good time to reiterate that that relationship is going to remain intact."

Asked whether the United States was surprised by the Mecca agreement, Rice said: "Well, we were continually saying to the Palestinian leadership that it was important for the Quartet principles to be respected. We are not going to make any judgments about whether or not this government will be a government that we can support or not, until we see the government and we see its program and we see what it says, but thus far I haven't seen anything that suggests that it will be in accordance with the Quartet principles."

Are you disappointed with Abbas or with the Saudi king [under whose auspices the agreement was signed]?

"I think and fully understand that the desire to have peace among Palestinians, so that you didn't have innocent Palestinians being killed, was very important. But let's wait and see what happens with this government. When I meet with Prime Minister Olmert and with President Abbas we will discuss the current situation, we will review and I hope recommit to existing agreements, and then I think we will have an opportunity to probe the diplomatic horizon as well, and it is time to start all that work or to engage in all of that work."

U.S. President George Bush spoke with Olmert last Friday. President Abbas only got a visit from Assistant Secretary [David] Welch. Is that the appearance of an "honest broker?"

"The president doesn't need to always make calls to everybody at any given time. The prime minister and the president haven't talked for a while - in fact for quite a long time - and it was a good thing to have a chance to talk to the prime minister and to say that this was an important meeting, that it was important to go ahead with this meeting, and to reaffirm America's commitment to the Quartet principles."

Talking about the political horizon, we have two very different points of view here. President Abbas has been talking about final status or nothing ... while the Israelis have been saying ... no talk about Jerusalem, the refugees or the 1967 borders. How can you reconcile that?

"When you have different views it is probably a good thing to get everyone in the same room so that we can talk about the views. We do have some guidance. We have a road map that it important, and one of the things that I am going to want to talk to the parties about is reaffirming and in fact carrying out their mutual obligations under the road map, including under the first phase [which requires the PA to dismantle the terrorist organizations and Israel to dismantle settlement outposts]."

Do you think that, given the current political realities on both sides, where both leaders appear too weak for their own good, is it possible for them to make any compromises on these hard issues, talk about Jerusalem?

"I am not going to ask anyone to run when we really need to walk for a while, because, as I said, I think if we ask everybody to run somebody is going to fall down. So let's just take this one step at a time. The road map has all of the issues that need to be resolved before a Palestinian state can be established. But the road map does not say that it is not possible to talk about the destination even if you have many, many conditions on both sides that need to be fulfilled before you can get there. The Palestinian people, I think, could benefit from knowing that there is in fact a destination and that the Israelis and Palestinians are prepared to talk about that destination."

Rice said it was important for each side to reaffirm its commitment to existing agreements such as the Sharm el-Sheikh cease-fire agreement and the Rafah agreement on border crossings, "and it is important to begin to scratch the surface of how we would move forward toward a Palestinian state by talking about a political horizon."

Is there a carrot ... here for Hamas? If they accept the Quartet principles, will you take them off the list of terrorist groups?

"The issue of how we deal with terrorists is long and in fact a statutory process in the United States. But clearly, a Palestinian government, no matter who is in it, that accepts the Quartet principles and says, 'We will recognize the right of Israel to exist, we will renounce violence, we will accept all international agreements,' and then acts on those principles, is going to be a government that the United States, and I think the international community, is going to want to take a very hard look at supporting. But those principles are foundational for peace."

Many Israeli politicians and officials are saying that it is all your fault by imposing [Hamas's participation in last year's Palestinian] election on Israel ... If Hamas would not have participated, all these complications and problems would not be there.

"The United States has more faith in the democratic process than that. Yes, elections produced an outcome that was complicated. Perhaps even an outcome that we might not even have liked. But you know we don't have a policy in the United States that says you only get to have an election if you elect people that the United States agrees with. That is not our policy. And this is a long process of the Palestinians coming to terms with the multiple factions in the Palestinian territories. The multiple views in the Palestinian territories of how to relate to Israel, the multiple views on how to get to a two-state solution.

"I don't regret for a moment giving the Palestinian people or supporting the Palestinian people in making an electoral choice. But with electoral choice comes responsibility, and what we have been saying since the day that the elections took place is that election is one thing and it was free and fair and we acknowledge that. But the responsibility then is to have a government that can actually govern, a government that can be responsive to the needs of the Palestinian people. And those needs are going to be best met in a two-state solution. And to have a two-state solution you simply must recognize the right of the other party to exist.

"The Palestinian people, I think like the Israeli people, recognize that a normal life would be a life in which there are two states living side by side in freedom and in peace. I am convinced that the great majority of Palestinians, the great majority of Israelis want exactly that. Now, eventually, I think a democratic process will reflect that underlying desire for peace. But we can't shortcut that process. The desire for peace has to be underpinned by some fundamental principles, and those fundamental principles include a renunciation of violence, the recognition of the right of both parties to exist, and adherence to international agreements. That's why the Quartet principles are still important. That is why we are continuing to reaffirm them."