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Mideast leaders agree to meeting

Times Staff Writers

Seeking a fresh start for stalled Mideast peace efforts, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Monday won promises from the leaders of Israel and the Palestinian Authority to meet with her next month for their first discussion of a final peace deal in more than six years.

Rice said Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas had agreed to meet for “informal, broad discussions” about the final moves toward a Palestinian state in hopes of injecting new energy into talks that have been in near-gridlock over initial steps.

“The parties haven’t talked about these [final-stage] issues for a long time,” Rice said after a meeting with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in this city on the banks of the Nile. “It seems wise to begin this ... to really just sit and talk about the issues.”

U.S. officials believe that by shifting the focus to what the outcome would look like, they could galvanize a process that has been bogged down for four years in discussion of difficult preliminary issues.

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The initiative from Rice, who spent the last three days meeting with Israeli and Palestinian officials, comes at a time of widespread gloom about the prospects for peace. The Bush administration, besieged with problems elsewhere and running out of time, is desperate to show progress.

The goal is to move the two sides toward such “final-status” issues as the shape of the new Palestinian state, the claims of Palestinian refugees to return to sites now in Israel, and the fate of Jerusalem.

New momentum would help build Palestinian support for the moderate, politically weak Abbas, and would encourage Arab governments to provide crucial help to the United States in its efforts to pacify Iraq and contain Iran’s influence.

But in a reminder of the difficulties that negotiators face, on the day that Rice met with Olmert, the Israeli Housing Ministry announced plans to expand Maale Adumim, a large Jewish settlement in the West Bank just east of Jerusalem. The ministry plans to build an additional 44 units.

U.S. officials have protested continued building in the West Bank, but Israeli officials defended the decision. They said it would not expand the perimeter of the settlement, and that it was consistent with an agreement reached with then-Secretary of State Colin L. Powell before the U.S.-backed “road map” peace plan called for a building freeze.

Saeb Erekat, a veteran Palestinian negotiator, said: “We condemn this step. This undermines efforts by Dr. Rice to revive the peace process and the road map. Israel must choose between building settlements and peace.”

U.S. officials remained vague about the goals of the three-way meeting, but a senior official traveling with Rice said the talks would explore “where do we want to go” and develop “some joint understanding of what’s in it for each side.”

Israeli officials said they had agreed to the talks, but emphasized that Olmert would continue with bilateral meetings dealing with the nuts-and-bolts issues of the relationship -- such as movement and access, funds, prisoners, and violence. Those often-stalled talks have been complicated by conflicts between Abbas’ Fatah movement and the militant group Hamas, which now controls the Palestinian government.

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“There is no doubt that we must, at the same time, continue the bilateral meetings between us and them,” Olmert said after his morning session with Rice.

His remarks reflect Israel’s preference to control the pace and scope of any talks with the Palestinians, rather than submitting to third-party oversight.

He told Israeli lawmakers from his Kadima party that if a Palestinian unity government made up of Hamas and Fatah members agreed to the peace plan’s conditions -- recognition of Israel, renunciation of violence and acceptance of previous accords -- then negotiations on a peace settlement could be possible.

Palestinian officials reacted cautiously.

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Ahmed Abdel-Rahman, a political advisor to Abbas, said Abbas was ready “in principle” to attend the three-way summit but was waiting for a date and a venue to be agreed on.

Since 2003, U.S. officials have said they were following the blueprint laid out in the peace initiative, which is backed by the so-called Quartet: the U.S., Russia, the European Union and the United Nations. The plan outlines the steps, such as reining in violence by Palestinian militants and halting Israeli settlement construction, that are intended to lead to peace.

Although the peace plan says the parties should concentrate on the next step before them, slowly building toward the major issues dividing Israelis and Palestinians, the new approach would have them simultaneously concentrating on the early issues and later ones.

Some outside experts have urged the Bush administration to begin talking about these later issues. They were last discussed in 2000 when, at the end of his second term, former President Clinton made a last intense attempt to work out the issues between the two sides.

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Another advocate of discussing them is Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who has been promoting a plan along these lines in recent weeks.

She has argued that if the Palestinians are offered a look at how the talks may turn out, producing a state for them, “it will help them do the difficult things they have to do now for stage one of the road map,” said one Israeli official, who declined to be identified.

Rice emphasized that the United States remained committed to the peace plan. U.S. officials said they wanted to hold the meeting in the Middle East but had not yet set a date or a location.

Strengthening Abbas has become a priority for the United States since March, when Hamas took control of the Palestinian parliament after elections in January.

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Olmert and Abbas held face-to-face talks last month. Though their agreements were hailed by the Americans as a sign of progress, movement has been slow. Olmert agreed to turn over $100 million of the more than $500 million in tax revenue that Israel has collected for the Palestinians, but has not yet done so, Palestinian officials say. They say promises to ease travel restrictions also have not been carried out.

Fawzi Barhoum, a Hamas spokesman, called Rice’s visit part of “an American-Israeli plan to support the Zionist occupation and harm the national interests of the Palestinians.

“Hamas and the majority of the Palestinian people are not expecting anything good from these summits,” he said.

“The new settlement [housing] in the West Bank is a new slap to everyone who still believes that the Americans are aiming to help the Palestinians,” Barhoum said. “It is very strange for the secretary of State to talk about peace while the occupation is carrying out crimes day and night.”

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paul.richter@latimes.com

boudreaux@latimes.com


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