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A day before meeting Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told a group of Jewish leaders she understood the difficulty Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is facing in dealing with the settlement issue now and seemed to accept the Israeli view that the Palestinians first act to combat terrorism.
In a meeting Tuesday with the leadership of the Israel Policy Forum (a pro-Israel, pro-peace advocacy group), Rice put the onus of moving forward on the Palestinian side and said she would like to see Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas act against terrorism even before the January PA elections.
"The secretary acknowledged that Abbas has to do more, even before the elections, and said that Sharon needs an indication that Abbas is willing to do so, before taking actions himself," said one of the officials who met with Rice.
During thier Wednesday meeting, Mofaz told Rice that Israel "wants to deal with President Abbas."
"We are waiting to see how the Palestinian Authority will deal with terrorist groups," the minister said.
At a news conference, Mofaz suggested Rice was in accord with Israel's campaign against Hamas and other groups the State Department lists as terrorist.
"The United States believes we have a right to defend our people," Mofaz said. "The US is very clear we have to give the best security to the Israeli people."
The Israel Policy Forum sent a letter to Rice several weeks ago in which the organization called on the US administration to be more active in holding both the Israelis and the Palestinians responsible to their commitments, including fighting terrorism and freezing settlements.
Following the letter, Rice invited the leadership of the organization to meet with her at the State Department on Tuesday. When asked at the meeting about making sure that the Israeli government acts according to the road map and stops settlement activity, Rice, according to someone who was there, said "she understands Sharon has difficulties moving forward as long as Abbas does not take control".
The differentiation Rice is making between the demands from Israel and the Palestinians and the emphasis on having Abbas live up to the road map before Sharon, is, according to experts, a growing trend in the US administration.
David Makovsky, director of the Project on the Middle East at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said the feeling is that now the US was expecting the Palestinian leadership to "reciprocate" for the Israeli disengagement, before moving forward.
"The administration believes that in some point Abbas needs to deliver," he said, adding that the US had not yet gained confidence in Abbas and was not yet willing "to invest political capital" in his leadership.
PA Minister for Jerusalem Affairs Hind Khouri, who is meeting this week with administration officials in Washington, said Wednesday she was presenting a Palestinian request to raise the issues of the final-status agreement right now, and not focus on details, such as the Rafah crossing and the participation of Hamas in PA elections.
"We are being dragged into details while we need to understand the urgency of making sure the two-state vision is possible," Khouri said.
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