(photo credit: AP)
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will arrive Sunday for a five-day visit during which she will shuttle between Jerusalem and Ramallah, and take day trips to Jordan and Egypt, to prepare the ground for a US-backed Middle East conference expected to be held next month in Annapolis, Maryland.
Rice is scheduled to meet separately Sunday with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, as well as with Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salaam Fayad.
In her meetings Sunday with Defense Ministry officials Rice is also expected to discuss reports that Israel recently expropriated some 1,100 dunams, or 275 acres, of land just east of Jerusalem known as E-1, to make possible the construction of a new neighborhood linking Ma'aleh Adumim to Jerusalem.
Rice, for whom diplomatic officials said E-1 was an especially sensitive issue, told reporters on her way to Moscow Thursday that she had called Israeli Ambassador to the US Sallai Meridor for clarifications on the matter.
Senior government officials took issue Saturday night with a Haaretz story last week saying the expropriation was meant to "free up" land for construction of the E-1 project. While an order for the expropriation of land was signed, it was not for E-1, the officials said, but rather connected to the construction of new roads linked to the plan to build the section of the security barrier around Ma'aleh Adumim.
As a result of the barrier, there is a need to build a new network of roads to enable Palestinians to travel north and south in the area without encountering IDF roadblocks.
Construction of this road network, designed to create what Ariel Sharon coined "transportation contiguity" for Palestinian areas in the West Bank, is already under way.
Although Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has said that Israel eventually plans to build E-1, construction there has been frozen since 2004, in large part due to US opposition. Nevertheless, a police station along with access roads has been built there, and is expected to begin operation within three months.
This is Rice's second visit to Israel in a month, having last been here on September 19.
In advance of her visit, former PA prime minister Ahmed Qurei, the lead Palestinian negotiator, said Saturday that Israel and the Palestinians must come up with a detailed agreement on the most divisive issues ahead of the US-sponsored meeting.
Qurei emphasized that the negotiating teams that began work last week had not forged a written agreement on any of these issues - final borders, the status of Jerusalem and refugees.
The document to be presented at the conference "should be a detailed, clear-cut document on the final-status issues," Qurei said after meeting with US diplomat David Welch.
If the conference failed to create clear foundations for peacemaking, "the outcome will not be good," he added.
Another Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat, said if the two sides didn't agree on a peace deal framework ahead of the conference, the US wouldn't even bother holding the meeting.
Because of all the uncertainties regarding the Annapolis meeting, the US has not yet announced who will participate, sent out invitations or formally set either a time or a place.
PA President Mahmoud Abbas, meanwhile, quelled rumors during a meeting with MK Ephraim Sneh (Labor) Saturday that he would meet with Hamas leaders after the conference. "He confirmed, in no uncertain words, that he would not speak with Hamas," Sneh said.
The London-based pan-Arab Al-Hayat newspaper reported on Saturday that Abbas had agreed to hold talks with the Hamas leadership in Egypt after the US summit.
The article quoted an unnamed Hamas official saying that "many Arab countries tried convincing Abu Mazen [Abbas] to hold talks between [Fatah and Hamas], but every time he requested a postponement. Recently, during a meeting with Sudanese President Omar al-Basheer, Abbas agreed to begin the talks after Basheer discussed with him the importance of a dialogue."
The source went on to say that following Abbas's consent to Basheer's request, the Khartoum government rushed to ask the Egyptians to host the event, because Sudan deems Egypt to be the country most capable of managing the Palestinian issue.
Furthermore, according to the report, representatives from Hamas and Fatah have recently held secret talks to "feel out a pulse" for further dialogue. "A few meetings were held between influential people in Hamas and Fatah, but were informal in nature" said the Hamas source.
Abbas has previously said he would only talk to Hamas if it stepped down from power in the Gaza Strip. During a trip by Abbas to Saudi Arabia last month, a PA official told The Jerusalem Post that "President Abbas will stress... his keenness on resuming dialogue with Hamas only after Hamas reverses the situation in the Gaza Strip and apologizes for its military coup."
Israel has made clear that talks with the PA would be discontinued if Hamas rejoined the PA government.
In a related development, Public Security Minister Avi Dichter met with Middle East Quartet envoy Tony Blair on Friday and said he was pessimistic about the chances for success at Annapolis.
Dichter said the parley was taking place too soon. The meeting should only take place after the Palestinians fulfilled their obligations under the first stage of the road map peace plan, he said.
Dichter predicted it would be impossible for the summit to achieve any real results. "Final-status negotiations need to come at the right time, and not too soon. Otherwise, we'll lose ground," he said.
Dichter also told Blair that the reason Israel had not carried out an extensive military operation in the Gaza Strip was concern this would lead to the collapse of the PA, and Israel would then be censured.
"So, even though 2,000 rockets have been fired [at Israel] since the [August 2005] disengagement from Gaza, we haven't done anything dramatic," he said.
Turning to Hamas's takeover of Gaza in June, Dichter said the coup was an "embarrassment" for the PA, and asked how "25,000 Palestinian police failed to do anything against 11,000 Hamas operatives?"
Hamas rule in Gaza had turned "the threat [Israel] most feared, a terrorist entity between us and Egypt," into a reality, he said.
Gaza and the PA should not be treated as a single entity, Dichter said. "Ahead of the Annapolis summit, we need to remember the reality in Gaza and the West Bank. Any attempt to join them is like trying to join crude oil and water."
"We need to be wary of declarations. [Abbas] says 'one authority and one law,' and I believe what he says. But those same declarations were made at the [Sharm e-Sheikh summit], and then at Aqaba, and then in Washington. These good declarations haven't brought about any serious action," Dichter said.
Sheera Claire Frenkel and AP contributed to this report.