Rice to press Olmert to continue talks

US consul General in J'lem has already met with non-Hamas members of gov't.

olmert rice in dc 298.88 (photo credit: GPO)
olmert rice in dc 298.88
(photo credit: GPO)
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is expected to press Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to continue holding talks about a "political horizon" with Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, and is expected to talk about these issues with Abbas herself, The Jerusalem Post has learned. Rice is scheduled to arrive here on Sunday for two days of talks, during which she has tentatively scheduled two rounds of talks each with Olmert and Abbas. She will be coming to Israel from Egypt and talks with the so-called Arab Quartet, which includes Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. In recent days differences in Israeli and US policy have emerged in two main areas. First, Israel is completely boycotting the new Palestinian Authority government, while the US will meet - and indeed the US consul General in Jerusalem Jacob Walles has already met - with non-Hamas members of the government with whom the US has had contact in the past. Secondly, while the cabinet on Sunday ruled out "political horizon" talks with Abbas as a result of the new government, and wants to limit future Olmert-Abbas talks to security and humanitarian issues, Rice has said she believes "political horizon" talks should continue. Meanwhile the Quartet, in a statement issued Wednesday evening, expressed its "strong support" for Rice's efforts to further facilitate discussions with Abbas and Olmert "with the aim of defining more clearly the political horizon for the establishment of a Palestinian state and an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict." Testifying Wednesday before a House subcommittee controlling foreign aid, Rice said, "I think it is extremely important to show American commitment to a political horizon so that the Palestinian people can see their future rests with moderate forces like [Abbas], not with those forces that are extreme." And at a press conference in Washington earlier this week, Rice said that in her upcoming meeting with Abbas she was going to "continue to try to work on bettering the lives of the Palestinian people as well as trying to push forward on a political horizon so that the Palestinian people can see the pathway to the establishment of a Palestinian state." Rice is expected not only to talk to Abbas about these issues, but also to press Olmert to talk with Abbas about them as well, and not only limit their discussions to day-to-day humanitarian and security issues. But in a clear indication that backing "political horizon" talks, and meeting with non-Hamas ministers, is not tantamount to a seismic shift in US policy, the Bush administration announced Wednesday that it will reduce a proposed $86 million security assistance package to the PA government in an effort to see that none of the money ends up with forces loyal to Hamas. Rice said Wednesday she would soon send Congress a revised package that will ensure only security elements loyal to Abbas receive the aid. "I have reformulated the plan, it's almost ready to come to you," Rice told lawmakers. "It will request less money, precisely because some of the money I would have requested I could not fully account for." She did not provide specifics of the reduction but said the new plan would leave intact a "firewall" aimed at keeping the money away from Hamas. The Quartet statement, which followed a telephone discussion between Rice, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, and European Commissioner for External Relations Benita Ferrero-Waldner, again reiterated the need for the PA government to commit itself to the Quartet's three principles. In the statement, "the Quartet reaffirmed its previous statements with regard to the need for a Palestinian government committed to non-violence, recognition of Israel and acceptance of previous agreements and obligations, including the road map, and encouraged progress in this direction. The Quartet agreed that the commitment of the new government in this regard will be measured not only on the basis of its composition and platform, but also its actions." The statement said that the Quartet also endorsed the continuation of the Temporary International Mechanism (TIM) that funnels money to the Palestinians while bypassing the PA government for a three-month period "while it evaluates the situation and the international community works to develop a more sustainable international mechanism for support to the Palestinians." Rice, meanwhile, is only one of a number of international diplomats who will be coming to the area the next week to gauge the situation following the establishment of the PA government. The UN's Ban is scheduled to arrive on Monday, and - in addition to talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders - will also meet with Rice. The following week, German chancellor Angela Merkel will arrive to assess the situation. Germany currently holds the rotating presidency of the EU. Merkel is scheduled to meet with Olmert and Abbas, but no other PA ministers. She is also scheduled to go to Lebanon and Jordan. Belgian Foreign Minister Karel De Gught arrived on Wednesday and met with Olmert. He is scheduled to meet Livni on Thursday, and Palestinian officials Friday. Swedish foreign minister Carl Bildt will follow him here. We will evaluate and have working contacts with the new (Palestinian) government, and that's why I'm going down there," Bildt told reporters in Stockholm. Bildt said he would meet with Abbas and two cabinet ministers in the Hamas-Fatah government during the trip to the Middle East starting Saturday. He said no meetings were scheduled with representatives of Hamas. On Sunday Bildt issued a statement welcoming the new Palestinian government, and saying "I hope we will be able to resume full cooperation with the Palestinian government." He is not scheduled to meet Olmert, although he will meet Livni. Reflective of the EU's policy - which is similar to that of the US - of meeting with non-Hamas PA ministers, the EU's special envoy Marc Otte met Tuesday with PA Foreign Minister Ziad Abu Amr in Ramallah, and on Wednesday with Fayad, in addition to a meeting with Abbas. UN envoy Alvaro de Soto also met with Fayad on Wednesday. Norway, however, remains the only western European country (it is not a member of the EU) to have sent a diplomat to meet with Hamas. Jerusalem has made clear that Israeli officials will not meet during the same trip with foreign diplomats who meet Hamas members of the PA government. AP contributed to this report.