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Palestinian Authority officials expressed satisfaction on Thursday with this week's visit by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to this city, saying that for the first time in two years they sensed that the US administration was serious about the resumption of Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations.
"We're very encouraged by this visit because we felt this time that Rice meant business," a senior PA official said. "The US wants to see real progress in the peace process and is willing to make a strong effort to help us establish an independent Palestinian state."
Hamas brushes off ME peace summit
It was Rice's first visit to the PA since Hamas took control of the entire Gaza Strip six weeks ago.
Hamas officials in the Strip accused Rice of seeking to divide the Palestinians by offering financial aid to the Fatah-controlled PA in the West Bank.
Many Palestinians here expressed optimism for the first time in months.
"The economy is certainly going to improve in the West Bank," said civil engineer Daoud Jawdat. "We hope the Americans will continue to give us money so that we can build institutions and provide jobs. This is the first time that many people here have a positive attitude toward Rice."
During the visit, Rice signed an agreement providing more than $80 million to bolster Fatah-controlled PA security forces in the West Bank.
In response, sources close to Hamas said the movement would open a campaign in the coming weeks to raise $100m. from Arab and Islamic countries to support the Hamas government in the Gaza Strip.
Rice also attended a meeting of the PA cabinet headed by Prime Minister Salaam Fayad before holding talks with PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas.
At a joint press conference with Abbas, Rice said that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told her that he was ready to discuss "fundamental issues" leading to the establishment of a Palestinian state.
"I will note that, again, Prime Minister Olmert told me last night that he, too, shared that view, that this was a meeting that ought to be and needs to be substantive and meaningful and that will, in fact, help get to a two-state solution," Rice said.
PA officials believe these issues include, among other things, the borders of a future Palestinian state, the case of the Palestinian refugees, the status of settlements in the West Bank and the future of Jerusalem - the so-called "final-status" issues.
Sources in the Prime Minister's Office, however, said the "fundamental" issues Rice referred to had to do with strengthening Palestinian government institutions and discussing in broad terms the content and contours of a future Palestinian state.
Talk about a willingness to deal with fundamental issues, according to diplomatic sources in Jerusalem, is - like the release of Palestinian security prisoners, declaring an amnesty for 180 wanted men in the West Bank, and the release of tax revenue to the PA - another gesture Olmert is making toward Abbas, underlining to the Palestinians what they have to gain by opting for a moderate leadership, rather than Hamas.
Until recently, Israel adamantly maintained that it would not discuss these issues until the PA uprooted the terrorist infrastructure.
Rice's talks with the PA leaders also focused on the international peace conference that US President George W. Bush has proposed for later this year. Rice told reporters the conference could "really advance Palestinian statehood." She added that she believed there should be a "deepening of the dialogue between the Palestinians and the Israelis on all of the issues." Regional leaders, including those in Saudi Arabia, told her during her current Middle East tour that the conference must deal with issues of substance, she said.
"The president of the United States has no desire to call people together for a photo opportunity. This is to call people together so that we can really advance Palestinian statehood," she said.
Olmert issued a statement on Thursday saying that he too believes the meeting should be "serious and meaningful" and welcomed "the participation of leaders of Arab countries in the meeting."
Rice said at the press conference that Hamas could not be considered a legitimate governing body until it renounced violence, recognized Israel and accepted past Israeli-Palestinian accords.
Referring to Fayad's government, she said: "We do have in the Palestinian territories a government that is devoted to the international principles, the foundational principles for peace, and this is an opportunity that should not be missed."
Abbas said he was ready to negotiate a declaration of principles with Israel as an interim step.
"The peace talks must be based on the road map and the Arab peace initiative," he said. "It's important for us to get results and then implement them on the ground."
Abbas said his goal was an independent Palestinian state that would live alongside Israel and end the anarchy in the Palestinian territories. "We want to ensure stability and economic prosperity for our people," he said.
Abbas added that he briefed Rice on the situation in the Gaza Strip, dubbing Hamas's violent takeover as a "major crime." Hamas's coup, he said, "leaves no room for dialogue between us. They must restore the situation to what it was before the coup and apologize to the Palestinians for what they did."
Hamas leaders in the Gaza Strip were quick to denounce Rice's visit to Ramallah as an attempt to deepen the "schism" among the Palestinians. "The American role in the region is based on creating more anarchy, incitement and killings," said Sami Abu Zuhri, a spokesman for Hamas. "Rice did not come to Ramallah to build a Palestinian state. She came to help Abbas build his deadly security forces so that they could persecute the Palestinian resistance and Hamas."
Meanwhile, Italy has also joined the effort to help Abbas establish good governance and boost the Palestinian economy. The Italian consul-general in Jerusalem, Francesco Forte, who met with Fayad in Ramallah on Thursday, launched cooperation programs with the PA government. The projects include a 25m. euro credit line to support small and medium enterprises, a 2.6m. euro emergency contribution for a multi-sector program to assist the most deprived population in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, particularly those affected by the security barrier, and $1.15m. for the promotion of good governance of Palestinian institutions.
Herb Keinon contributed to this report.