US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice hinted Sunday that she was in favor of ideas presented recently by Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni about negotiations with the Palestinian Authority over the contours of a future state even before the road map is implemented, to give the Palestinians a "political horizon."
Rice, at a press conference in Ramallah after meeting Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, said it was time "to look at the political horizon and begin to show the Palestinian people how we might move toward a Palestinian state." According to the plan articulated recently by Livni, negotiations with the Palestinians over statehood would take place even though they have not implemented the first stage of the road map - uprooting the terrorist infrastructure - but that Palestinian statehood would only materialize once the Palestinian obligations under the road map were met.
The logic behind this approach is to give the Palestinians an incentive to either vote Hamas out of office or get the organization to change its stripes so that the road map could be implemented and statehood could be achieved.
After meeting Abbas, Rice went to Amman for talks with Jordan's King Abdullah. According to Jordan's official news agency, Petra, Abdullah called on the United States to actively push for a revival of Palestinian-Israeli negotiations.
Abdullah warned that without tangible, specific steps to activate the implementation of the road map "the cycle of violence will widen." Rice's visit to Jordan was part of her efforts to strengthen the "moderate" camp in the Arab world. She is expected to discuss various ways that this can be done during a meeting scheduled Monday morning with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in Jerusalem.
Following her meeting with Olmert, Rice will travel to Egypt, and then to Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.
In her press conference with Abbas, Rice promised deeper US engagement in the Middle East peace process. "I have heard loud and clear the call for deeper American engagement in these processes," she said.
"The US is absolutely committed to helping find a solution where Israelis and Palestinians can live in security, in which they can live in peace and which they can live in democracy. You will have my commitment to do precisely that."
Nevertheless, Palestinian Authority officials in Ramallah expressed disappointment with the outcome of Rice's talks with Abbas, saying she did not bring any new ideas.
"Rice came only to listen," said a senior PA official after the meeting between Abbas and Rice. "We're disappointed because she did not bring new ideas to resume the peace process."
Abbas told Rice that he opposes the establishment of a provisional Palestinian state with temporary borders. "We reaffirmed to Secretary Rice our rejection of any temporary or transitional solutions, including a state with temporary borders, because we don't regard it as a realistic option," he told a joint press conference with Rice.
Abbas said the Palestinians were keen on resuming the peace process with Israel only on the basis of the road map. He complained that Israel had failed to fulfill its promises to ease restrictions on the Palestinians following his meeting last month with Olmert.
Israel, Abbas added, should give the peace process a chance by stopping the construction of the security fence and settlements in the West Bank, releasing Palestinian prisoners, halting all security measures and lifting the "siege" imposed on the Palestinians.
He also stressed the need to extend the cease-fire that was declared in the Gaza Strip several weeks ago to the West Bank.
Referring to efforts to form a unity government with Hamas, Abbas said it was premature to talk about a summit with Syria-based Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal.
Sources close to Abbas and Hamas said over the weekend that they did not rule out the possibility that the two would meet later
this week in Damascus.
Abbas reiterated his threat to call early presidential and parliamentary elections if talks with Hamas over the formation of a unity government did not result in a "happy end." Hamas criticized the meeting between Abbas and Rice, saying it was aimed at serving the interests and security of Israel.
Commenting on Rice's statements in Ramallah, Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said the US secretary of state did not bring anything new to the Palestinians. "She came to Ramallah to give the Palestinians empty promises," he said. "The purpose of her visit is to consolidate the road map, which does not grant the Palestinians their basic rights."
Rice, meanwhile, said in a Channel 10 interview that talk about a possible military strike against Iran shows just how serious it would be for the Iranians to continue down the path of nuclear development.
"I still think there is room for diplomacy, but even talk of such action shows how serious it would be for Iran to continue their actions unabated," she said.
Rice discussed the recently imposed UN Security Council sanctions on Iran, saying they sent "a strong message to Iran that the world is united against the path that they have embarked on." But, she said, sanctions alone were still not enough.
Rice also backed Olmert's decision not to engage in dialogue with the Syrians, despite various overtures toward negotiations coming from Damascus. "There is no indication that the Syrians have anything but disruptive plans for the Middle East," she said in the interview.
In a related development, chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Dan Halutz told the cabinet Sunday that recent comments about the likelihood of a war this summer with Syria were "premature and exaggerated." With these comments Halutz was trying to "reduce the temperature" with Syria. He said that Damascus was also hearing the talk in Israel of a war in the summer, and that sometimes "miscalculations can lead to unwanted consequences."
Shin Bet Director Yuval Diskin, meanwhile, said at the meeting that the unprecedented level of violence last week between Fatah and Hamas had increased the chance of a Palestinian unity government.
"The violence between the two factions is the worst that we've had in a long time, with 20 killed in one week," Diskin said. He said that most of the violence was Hamas members killing Fatah members. He said that as the violence got worse, the chances were better that a Palestinian unity government would be formed.
Diskin said that there was growing talk on the Palestinian street of a unity government that would include Ismail Haniyeh as prime minister, Salaam Fayad as finance minister, and an interior minister from the outside who would be agreeable to both.
He said that the Palestinians themselves were taken aback by the level of violence last week between the two factions.
Regarding the situation in Gaza, Diskin said that Hamas was careful not to fire Kassam rockets on Israel, and that the organization was respecting the "calm" with Israel and using the period to rebuild its forces.
He said that the Kassam rockets were being fired primarily by Islamic Jihad, and that - unlike the situation in the past - these rockets were not being provided by Hamas. He said that Hamas has not and would not take any action against "resistance forces."
Turning to the tenuous security situation along the Gaza-Egyptian border, Diskin said that there has been a decline in arms smuggling from Sinai to Gaza, and that this might be because the Egyptians were doing more to prevent smuggling.
He added, however, that Hamas had continued to receive money from Iran, and that the money continued to be smuggled in through Egypt.
Diskin said that the international isolation of Hamas was depriving the organization of legitimacy and funds, but was as a result driving it into Iran's arms, and that Teheran was happy to provide the group with money and training.
Regarding Hizbullah, Diskin told the cabinet that the organization was working to build an infrastructure in Gaza, the West Bank, and even to a certain degree among Israeli Arabs.