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Rice, Abbas to meet in West Bank

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice put Washington's heft behind new Mideast peace overtures on Tuesday, scheduling an unexpected meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas this week.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice put Washington's weight behind new Mideast peace overtures on Tuesday, scheduling an unexpected meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas this week.

The meeting -- the second between Rice and Abbas in two months- - was announced a day after Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert called on the Palestinians to return to peace talks, saying his country would be willing to leave most of the West Bank in exchange for a "real peace."

Israel and the Palestinians also agreed Saturday on a cease-fire to end five months of fighting in the Gaza Strip, and Rice's visit was seen as a further push to use the momentum to start new peace talks.

Rice, who is accompanying President Bush on a trip to neighboring Jordan, will meet Abbas on Thursday in the West Bank town of Jericho, said Saeb Erekat, a top Abbas aide. Sean McCormack, a State Department spokesman, raised the possibility that she would also meet with an Israeli official.

The United States was the main engine behind the phased "road map" peace plan, which calls for the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel. The plan foundered shortly after it was presented in 2003, with both sides failing to live up to their initial obligations.

Subsequent efforts to get the sides talking again suffered another blow in January, when Hamas militants won Palestinian parliamentary elections. Israel and the West boycotted the new government, imposing crippling economic sanctions on the Palestinian Authority to try to force the Islamic group to moderate its violently anti-Israel views.

Tensions exploded in June when Hamas-linked militants captured an Israeli soldier, sparking an Israeli military offensive in Gaza. But the cease-fire that went into effect early Sunday has raised hopes that new peace moves could be on the horizon.

Olmert's overture
In his speech Monday, Olmert said Israel would release frozen funds to the Palestinian Authority, free Palestinian prisoners and ease checkpoints if Palestinians choose the path of peace.

Abbas said Tuesday that Olmert's speech was a "positive" step toward peacemaking.

If Olmert's "intentions are good, then we can build on this (his initiative) in order to put forward a plan for future negotiations on all issues related to the Palestinian cause," Abbas said during a visit to Jordan.

The cease-fire remains fragile, with militants still firing homemade rockets at Israel since the truce took effect. Militants launched two more rockets at Israel on Tuesday night, Palestinian witnesses said. There were no reports of injuries.

Olmert said he was "a bit frustrated" the rocket fire had not stopped.

"I hope the Palestinians will meet their commitment to the cease-fire just as we are," he said, adding that Israel plans to continue to show restraint in responding.

But Defense Minister Amir Peretz warned there was a limit to Israel's patience.

"Whoever agrees to a cease-fire must be able to impose it," Peretz said. "Violations of cease-fire understandings will provoke a harsh response on our part."

U.S. praises Israeli restraint
McCormack, the State Department spokesman, praised Israel for showing "great restraint in not responding to some of the rocket attacks that actually have taken place after the cease-fire officially went into effect."

McCormack said the Palestinians must have a government that complies with international demands to stop attacks on Israel, accept Israel's right to exist and respect past Israeli-Palestinian agreements. Hamas has not yet agreed to those demands.

Military officials said Israel has agreed in principle to let Abbas bring 1,200 Jordan-based Palestine Liberation Organization forces into Gaza to help monitor the cease-fire. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.

The Palestinians were informed of Israel's decision, the officials said, but Erekat said no deal had been finalized.

Also Tuesday, Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas left Gaza for his first trip abroad since taking office in March. Haniyeh was to hold meetings in Egypt on Wednesday. He will also visit Lebanon, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Syria and Iran to seek political and financial support for his government.