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US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is interested in a regional conference aimed at boosting Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas and leading the sides back to the road map, senior Israeli diplomatic sources said Wednesday night, as Rice was meeting with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
The officials said that Rice's main focus at this time was how to strengthen Abbas, amid a growing realization in Washington that the situation in the PA is "catastrophic." The officials said that Rice's meetings in Jerusalem were intended to "take stock" of the situation and see what measures could be taken to forge a moderate front in the region as a counterbalance to Iran, Syria, Hizbullah and Hamas.
Olmert, according to a statement issued by his office after the meeting, told Rice that with all his interest in helping Abbas, he would not release Palestinian prisoners until abducted Cpl. Gilad Shalit was released.
He told Rice that he was willing to help Abbas implement the road map and create a "better environment," and that the Karni Crossing in Gaza would be reopened soon.
Regarding Palestinian tax revenues that Israel has withheld from the PA since Hamas took control earlier in the year, Olmert said that Israel would present ideas to provide humanitarian aid, such as assistance to hospitals or the purchase of drugs.
Turning to the situation in Lebanon, Olmert stressed to Rice the importance of keeping Iran and Syria from rearming Hizbullah.
The idea of a regional conference, the officials said, was not in order to launch any new grand initiative but rather as a way of mobilizing the moderate states and seeing if they could not help salvage the road map.
Diplomatic sources said that Olmert has in the past "responded positively to the general idea of a dialogue with the moderates, and indicated that he would be willing to be a participant" in discussions.
One senior government source said that the Israeli government and Olmert were currently "having a dialogue with the moderate Arab regimes - as we have had in the past with Egypt, Jordan, and some of the Persian Gulf countries - and have noticed their interest in cooperation." Olmert reportedly met secretly with a ranking Saudi official in Amman last month.
According to Israeli government sources, the war in Lebanon against Hizbullah, as well as the Iranian nuclear threat, had highlighted the common ground the moderate Arabs states and Israel have in the region.
Rice, who arrived in Israel Wednesday as part of a regional tour that took her to Saudi Arabia and Egypt, met with Olmert for dinner at his residence in Jerusalem after meeting Abbas in Ramallah, and other Palestinian officials in east Jerusalem. In Cairo she met with the foreign ministers of Jordan, Egypt and the Gulf Cooperation Council made up of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, and Kuwait.
Rice is scheduled to meet Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Defense Minister Amir Peretz Thursday morning before flying back to Washington.
Even as the officials in Jerusalem were bracing for the regional summit idea, they denied unequivocally that Justice Minister Meir Sheetrit was speaking for Olmert Wednesday when he urged Israel to engage Saudi Arabia in peace talks based on the terms of the 2002 Saudi peace plan. The plan includes a full Israeli return to the 1967 lines, including the Golan and east Jerusalem, in return for normalizing ties with Israel.
Sheetrit said Wednesday that Israel should "accept the initiative of the moderate states, of the Saudis, and propose to them 'Come, let's talk about the initiative,'" and was the first Kadima cabinet minister to call for negotiations on the basis of the Saudi plan.
Israel rejected the Saudi initiative when it was first launched in 2002, and has not formally responded to various ideas to revamp and upgrade the initiative that have been bandied about in recent weeks, largely because there is no document to which to respond.
One diplomatic source denied categorically that Sheetrit was floating a "trial balloon" for Olmert, noting that Sheetrit's and Olmert's political relationship was not close enough for that level of cooperation.