Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas appealed to the Bush administration Wednesday for more support in peace talks with Israel that have bogged down five months after both sides pledged to reach a deal by January.
In a meeting with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice ahead of talks with President Bush on Thursday, Abbas said time was running out if that target laid out at the Annapolis Conference in November was to be met and that more pressure must be exerted on Israel to stop the expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
"Five months after Annapolis, the gap is still wide between the Palestinians and the Israelis," chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat quoted Abbas as telling Rice in the hour-and-a-half meeting. "He emphasized that there is a gap that separates the two parties. Time is running, time is precious. And this phase needs decisions."
He said Abbas told Rice that Israel's continuing expansion of settlements, a halt to which is a major component of the so-called roadmap blueprint for peace, "is one of the greatest obstacles that stands in our way to reach an agreement with the Israelis."
"Israel must stop their settlement expansion," Erekat said. "It is a major commitment according to the first phase of the roadmap."
Abbas' spokesman Abu Rudeina, echoed Erekat's remarks, saying the Palestinian and Israeli positions were still far apart.
"That requires American intervention," Rudeina said.
Hopes for a peace deal
Abbas is struggling for authority in the West Bank against the militant Hamas movement that controls Gaza. Bush hopes to achieve a peace deal between the Palestinians and Israel before he leaves office in January. Bush met on Wednesday with Jordan's King Abdullah II to discuss the process.
The White House meetings are a prelude to next month's trip by Bush to the Middle East to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the founding of Israel. He also is expected to visit Saudi Arabia and Egypt.
The administration had been holding out hope it could arrange a peace summit during the visit, perhaps at the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheik, where Bush is now set to see Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. The idea was to have Arab leaders endorse an interim statement demonstrating at least some progress, officials said.
But there are deep misgivings about such a meeting among both Arabs and the Israelis, given the slow pace of negotiations, and prospects for the summit are slim, officials said.
Abbas wants a framework peace agreement by January with timetables and specifics leading to the creation of a Palestinian state and not just a "declaration of principles" as suggested by some Israel officials. He has said his talks with Bush on Thursday will focus on achieving a real deal on core issues and not just promises.
"We seek a framework agreement that includes all the core issues and how these core issues will be resolved — and ending with the establishment of a Palestinian independent state," Abbas said Tuesday.
Issues in debate
The core issues remain the final borders of a Palestinian state, the fate of Jerusalem, disputed Israeli settlements, refugees, water and future relations between the two states.
The White House did not give a readout on the Bush-Abdullah meeting. The Jordanian Embassy said Abdullah, who later saw Abbas, stressed the importance of U.S. involvement and Washington's role in overcoming obstacles to progress, particularly in pressing Israel on the settlements and easing Palestinian access.
"King Abdullah said it is important that Israel refrains from measures that would jeopardize negotiations with the Palestinians and called for an end to all Israeli settlement activities, a lifting of the blockade and restrictions on the movement of Palestinians," the embassy said.
Rice is stepping up efforts to boost the authority of Abbas by appointing a senior State Department official to run former British Prime Minister Tony Blair's Mideast office. Blair is now an envoy to the Palestinians for the international diplomatic quartet on the Middle East.
Ahead of Bush's trip, Rice is expected to travel to Israel and the West Bank after attending a Palestinian donors' conference that Blair is hosting in London on May 2. A ministerial meeting of the quartet — the United States, the European Union, the United Nations and Russia — is expected at the same time.
Officials said the administration, which already has pledged $555 million to the Palestinians this year, was looking at slight increases to announce at the conference, but that a major boost in aid was unlikely, as Congress has not yet approved the budget.