WASHINGTON - Prime Minister Ehud Olmert announced yesterday that he intends to meet with Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas "in the coming days."
In an interview on Army Radio, Olmert said that this meeting is not conditional upon the release of kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. The Prime Minister's Bureau later said that the meeting will not take place next week, as it requires advance planning.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will come to Israel next Thursday for meetings with Olmert and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni. At Wednesday's cabinet meeting, Olmert said that he plans to talk to Rice about weapons smuggling from Sinai into the Gaza Strip via Rafah. Because of Yom Kippur, Rice will meet with Abbas in Ramallah before coming to Israel rather than afterward.
In Jerusalem, Rice will discuss the implementation of Security Council Resolution 1701 in Lebanon and ways to bolster the Lebanese government headed by Fouad Siniora. She will also discuss ways to advance Israeli-Palestinian relations, including implementation of the stalled Rafah Crossing Agreement that she brokered in November 2005. One goal of Rice's visit to the region is to explore the conditions for reviving the peace process.
Another goal is to build a coalition of moderate Arab states to counter Iran. In Riyadh, Rice will convene delegates from the moderate states for a gathering entitled Friends of Peace. Her office announced that Rice will consult with leaders in the region who have a vision for a democratic, stable and thriving Middle East.
The American administration currently sees a common interest between Israel and the moderate Arab states, which view a stronger Iran as a threat to regional stability. Rice will explore whether this can be used to move the peace process forward. The U.S. wants Arab leaders to pressure the Palestinian government into taking stances that would enable it to become a partner for negotiations. The results of her talks will influence U.S. President George W. Bush's decision on whether to tour the region after the Congressional elections in November.
According to American experts on the region, who are relying on Saudi sources, the White House considered including a paragraph calling for an international peace conference in Bush's speech at the United Nations last week, but backed off at the last minute. The experts said that the head of Saudi Arabia's national security council, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, visited Washington and discussed the Bush speech with senior administration officials. Afterward, Bandar's deputy, Adel Jubair, visited the U.S. for talks on Iran.
The U.S. House of Representatives yesterday held a joint hearing of two subcommittees of the Committee on International Relations - the International Terrorism and Nonproliferation Subcommittee and the Middle East and Central Asia Subcommittee. Several administration officials testified that Hezbollah also operates outside Lebanon and that activity by the organization, primarily fundraising, has been detected in the U.S. The witnesses, from the State Department and FBI, said that Hezbollah has a global reach and is one of the most dangerous terror groups in the world. Part of the testimony focused on Hezbollah's activity in South America, including possible ties to drug cartels.
On Wednesday, the House of Representatives passed a bill strengthening cooperation between the U.S. and Israel in the war on terror. The bill would require the Office of Homeland Security to open a department for cooperation with countries that can assist the U.S. in countering terror. Israel is mentioned alongside Britain and other countries. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which backs the bill, issued a statement praising the House of Representatives. The bill still requires Senate approval.