Rice Will Tell Abbas 'Don't Miss Opportunity'

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice plans to tell Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas at their meeting tomorrow that he must increase his efforts to impose order in the Palestinian Authority, in order not to miss the opportunity to resume negotiations offered by the Gaza cease-fire and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's speech in Sde Boker on Monday, sources in Washington said yesterday.

Rice will pledge America's aid in strengthening Abbas' position, the sources said, but will stress that the United States expects results from him in return.

Israeli officials said Washington understands that further progress depends on the success of the cease-fire, which took effect on Sunday.

As of last night, it was still unclear whether Rice would also come to Jerusalem to meet with Olmert and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, or whether she would merely pop over to Jericho for a meeting with Abbas following her scheduled visit to Jordan. She was slated to make a final decision late last night.

Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman will come to Israel today for talks on a deal over the release of soldier Gilad Shalit, who was kidnapped to Gaza by Hamas in a cross-border raid in June. Olmert said in his Sde Boker speech that Shalit's return was a precondition for diplomatic negotiations with the PA.

Suleiman will brief Olmert and other Israeli officials on his talks with Khaled Meshal, the head of Hamas' political bureau, last week. After these talks, the Egyptians said that progress had been made toward finalizing a prisoner exchange. He will also discuss ways to shore up the cease-fire and other issues related to efforts to promote diplomatic negotiations between Israel and the PA.

But according to a source familiar with the negotiations over Shalit, these talks are currently at an impasse due to disagreements over how many Palestinian prisoners Israel will free in exchange for the kidnapped soldier. The source said Hamas is willing to defer discussion of two other potential sticking points - the severity of the crimes committed by the prisoners to be released and the exact identity of these prisoners - but is insisting that Israel release at least 1,000 prisoners. That is down from its earlier demand of 1,400, but Israeli negotiators told Egypt, which is mediating the talks, that Olmert had authorized them to agree to a maximum of 300.

Despite this problem, another source involved in the talks predicted that a deal could be finalized within a matter of weeks. "By Id al-Adha [the Feast of the Sacrifice], which occurs at the end of December, it is possible to conclude the deal," he said.

But a senior Israeli official predicted that the prisoner exchange would ultimately only occur as part of a package deal that would include Israeli recognition of a new Palestinian government, the resumption of European aid to the PA, and a transfer of the taxes Israel collects on the PA's behalf, but has refused to release since Hamas took power, on the grounds that it is a terrorist organization committed to Israel's destruction.

Abbas, who met yesterday with King Abdullah of Jordan, said after the meeting that he was encouraged by Olmert's Sde Boker speech, in which the prime minister spoke of negotiating a final-status agreement with the Palestinians, and particularly by Olmert's favorable reference to the peace plan proposed by the Arab League in 2002.

But members of Olmert's staff told foreign diplomats yesterday that the prime minister is opposed to beginning final-status negotiations with Abbas unless the PA government recognizes Israel, renounces violence and accepts previous Israeli-Palestinian agreements. These are the three conditions set by the Quartet (the United States, the European Union, the United Nations and Russia) for recognition of the PA government.

The staffers stressed that the prime minister's speech at Sde Boker did not imply that he was backtracking on his previous insistence that the Quartet's demands be met. Israel, they said, would not accept any compromises on these conditions.

They also said that Olmert has no intention of skipping the second stage of the road map peace plan, which calls for a Palestinian state in temporary borders, unless and until the PA complies fully with its obligations under the plan's first stage - namely, eradicating the terrorist infrastructure.

Government officials consequently expressed satisfaction with the report they received from White House envoy Elliott Abrams, who arrived in Jerusalem yesterday after a visit to Europe. Abrams told Olmert that the EU leaders promised him that any diplomatic initiative in the Middle East would be coordinated in advance with the United States, and that a plan for reviving Israeli-Palestinian talks that was recently unveiled by Spain, France and Italy would not be promoted without America's consent.