Israel will help Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas "create a better environment" and return to peacemaking, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Wednesday night following a meeting with visiting U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
Rice said Wednesday that the United States wants to help make practical improvements in the Palestinians' daily lives, as violence, deprivation and political chaos are reaching threatening levels in the PA. The secretary of state said the U.S. is "very concerned" about the plight of the Palestinians.
Rice is putting mild pressure on Israel to loosen what Palestinians claim is a blockade of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. These territories are not economically viable without extensive trade across their borders with both Israel and, for Gaza, Egypt, and without Palestinians being able to leave daily for jobs elsewhere.
Rice met Abbas in Ramallah Wednesday and held talks on the crisis in the PA and how the U.S. could bolster the chairman's position.
Throughout her visit in the region this week, Rice has emphasized her intention to rally moderate elements in the Middle East, and Abbas, she said, is one of these.
"The Palestinians need a government that can provide for their needs and meet the conditions of the Quartet," she said, referring to the international community's conditions for recognizing the Palestinian government. These require the PA government to recognize Israel, relinquish violence and accept agreements previously signed by the PLO (Palestine Liberation Organization). Since its election to power in January, Hamas has refused to meet these conditions, and the PA has suffered a severe economic crisis as a result of the consequent international aid cutoff.
At a joint press conference in Ramallah with Abbas, Rice expressed her sorrow over the fact that much of the Palestinian population lacked basic supplies for the holiday month of Ramadan.
"I promised Chairman Abbas to double our efforts to improve the living conditions of Palestinians," she said.
Rice also promised to pass on to Olmert a Palestinian request that Israel resume transferring the taxes it collects on the PA's behalf - something it stopped doing following Hamas's election - open the border crossings and end settlement expansion.
Rice's visit was coolly received by Hamas leaders Wednesday. PA Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh said the secretary's visit was meant to serve Israel's interests and to "categorize the states of the region," a reference to the Bush administration's tendency to distinguish between moderates and extremists in the Middle East.
Meanwhile, Hamas on Wednesday rejected the two-week deadline posed by Abbas earlier this week for completing negotiations on an agreement for a national unity government.
In his meeting with Rice, Olmert was to reiterate a message he gave visiting members of the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday, that "for the first time in my life I feel that there is an existential threat against the State of Israel."
Olmert was expected to stress in talks with Rice that the United States must play a central role in countering the threat posed by Iran and its nuclear ambitions.
On Thursday, Rice will meet Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, Defense Minister Amir Peretz, and is then expected to leave Israel - possibly for an unscheduled visit to Beirut.
Rice is visiting Israel following a meeting Tuesday in Cairo with the foreign ministers of six Gulf States, Egypt and Jordan, in a mini-summit that was meant to coalesce moderate Arab states in the region.
At the end of the summit, Rice called for the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel.
This is the first meeting of this forum, which has raised many questions among Arab states regarding its purpose. "This is not a coalition against anybody," said Rice.
The Egyptian foreign minister, Ahmed Abul Gheit, said that no differences of opinion emerged during the meeting, since all the participants are friendly states.
"Our purpose is peace in the region, stability and development. The aim is the establishment of a Palestinian state," he added.
Rice's tour of the region takes place amid growing criticism regarding her conduct as National Security Adviser in the Bush administration, prior to 9/11. A new book by Bob Woodward of the Washington Post suggests that she ignored a warning that Al-Qaida planned to carry out a major terrorist attack on U.S. soil.
According to political sources in Jerusalem, there were reservations among administration insiders whether Rice should visit Israel and the Palestinian Authority at a time when the main purpose of her tour of the area is to foment a unified front of moderates in the Middle East against Iran.
These views stemmed from the assessment that the current political climate on the Israeli-Palestinian front is not conducive to any talks or a breakthrough.
However, the conclusion was that skipping over Jerusalem and Ramallah would be perceived negatively among the same moderates, at a time when the U.S. is trying to restore confidence in its regional role.
Rice and Israel's leadership are expected to discuss the Iranian threat, the implementation of Security Council Resolution 1701 in Lebanon, and the problematic domestic situation in the Palestinian Authority.
According to political sources in Jerusalem, it will be difficult to seriously discuss "steps for strengthening the position of Abbas" at a time when there are violent clashes between Fatah and Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
Judging from statements made by Olmert in a meeting with visiting members of the Senate Armed Services Committee in Jerusalem on Tuesday, Israel, like the Bush administration, is focused on Iran.
The senators informed Olmert of their visit to Jordan and stressed the need for the formation of a "coalition of moderates," in the region against the threat of a more powerful Iran.
During a meeting with Peretz, the senators were interested to hear about ways in which the results of the Lebanon war could affect the situation in Iraq.
Peretz stressed the difference between "facts and symbols."
"Obviously the fact is that we have an advantage. Hezbollah paid dearly, and will consider very carefully before attacking Israel again," he told the visiting senators.
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