During his meeting with US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert stressed, according to Israeli officials, that Hamas must "be kept out of the game." Further, Olmert articulated Israel's concern about transferring security control over West Bank cities to the PA before adequate security guarantees could be provided. This was Rice's first visit here since Hamas took control of the Gaza Strip in June. Olmert spelled out the various moves Israel has taken to bolster PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, including releasing frozen tax revenue, releasing security prisoners, granting amnesty to 180 fugitives, providing humanitarian assistance to Gaza and increasing security cooperation.
Israeli experts skeptical about Rice's prospects
Rice arrived in Jerusalem from Jeddah, where she met with the Saudi leadership in an effort to win a committment of Saudi participation in the upcoming Mideast peace conference. At a press conference with Rice and US Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal said, "When we get an invitation from the minister [Rice] to attend, when this takes place, we will study it and we will be keen to attend."
Saudi Arabia's tentative but positive response to US plans to convene a regional conference in the fall marks the "beginning of the bargaining process" to bring the Saudis to the meeting, Israeli officials said Wednesday after Rice held a series of meetings in Jerusalem.
Rice came to Jerusalem carrying the upbeat but noncommittal response from the Saudis. The idea of a regional meeting, according to Israeli officials, took up a significant part of Rice's discussions with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert Wednesday night.
Both the US and Israel view Saudi involvement in the diplomatic process as vital to advancing Israeli-Palestinian talks.
"I was encouraged by the attitude that I have seen here among all of the parties about the prospects of this international meeting," Rice said before meeting with Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni earlier in the afternoon. But she stopped short of announcing Saudi participation, saying: "I think it's too early... to issue invitations, and certainly too early to expect people to say whether they will attend."
Livni said she was "encouraged" by this response, and the Prime Minister's Office put out a statement saying Israel hoped "many Arab countries would attend this international meeting, including Saudi Arabia."
Faisal said Riyadh was "interested in the peace conference, one that deals with the heart of the peace process, the issues of peace, the core issues, not one that is just a podium for meetings and talk that do not enrich peace."
He said earlier in the week in Cairo that the conference would only be worthwhile if it discussed final-status issues such as borders, refugees and Jerusalem - matters that Israel wants eventually to discuss directly with the Palestinians in bilateral negotiations.
A statement issued by the Saudi Foreign Ministry on Wednesday said: "We were briefed by Rice on the US President's initiative to hold [an] International Peace Conference, and we believe this initiative includes a number of important and positive elements on the comprehensive solution, the establishment of a comprehensive Palestinian state, the dismemberment of Jewish colonies, the resolution of the issue of refugees and the city of Al-Quds [Jerusalem]. These elements in their contents complement with the Arab Initiative for [a] comprehensive peace solution. We are welcoming this initiative."
The statement quoted Faisal as saying Israel needed to prove its seriousness in dealing with peace steps and to avoid "political maneuver. The Israelis should use practical moves, avoiding diplomatic protocols which are used for propaganda."
The Saudi conception of the conference goes far beyond the more limited idea that US President George W. Bush outlined in his July 16 speech on the Middle East. What emerged during that speech was not a full-fledged peace conference but rather a "meeting" that would serve as an umbrella to "provide diplomatic support for the parties in their bilateral discussions and negotiations, so that we can move forward on a successful path to a Palestinian state."
Bush also said countries would be invited to the meeting who "recognize Israel's right to exist," something Saudi Arabia has never done.
Israeli diplomatic officials said Wednesday night that this issue could be "finessed." The officials also said the Saudis wanted the sides to lay out their positions on the core issues at the meeting, something that Israel is reluctant to do, as it us unwilling to enter into full-fledged negotiations with the Palestinian Authority before it proves willing and able to tackle terrorism.
In addition to meeting with Olmert and Livni, Rice - who arrived as part of a regional tour that took her to Egypt and Saudi Arabia - also met with President Shimon Peres and Defense Minister Ehud Barak.
Gates went with Rice to Egypt and Saudi Arabia, but did not join her here.
Rice is scheduled to go to Ramallah Thursday morning for separate meetings with PA Prime Minister Salaam Fayad and Abbas before flying back to Washington.
Referring to the situation in Gaza, Rice said before meeting with Livni: "Ultimately the Palestinian people will have to choose what kind of world they live in, what kind of state they will have. It is very clear that what happened in Gaza was against the legitimate institutions of the Palestinian people, the Palestinian Authority. We are not going to abandon the people of Gaza to Hamas. In fact our efforts to make certain that humanitarian assistance can get to Gaza will continue. We know that there are a lot of innocent Palestinians living in Gaza under these conditions."
"This is a time to seize opportunities and it is a time to proceed in a prepared and careful way, as one does not want to miss opportunities because of a lack of preparation," Rice said. "But it is nonetheless a time when we have to take advantage of what is before us."
Livni also referred to new opportunities, saying there was now a "Palestinian government which meets the requirements of the international community, a government that believes in the division of two states, a government that shows determination to change the situation - and Israel is not going to miss this opportunity."
Peres told Rice she brought "hope and vitality" to a complicated situation, and had formulated a policy "that takes us nearer than ever before to a conclusive chapter" in the quest for peace in the region.
He invited Bush to come to Israel in May 2008 to join in the nation's 60th Independence Day festivities.
"The US did so much for us," Peres said. "It enabled us to live in freedom and peace."
"We are nearing our 60th anniversary," he said. "I truly hope we shall celebrate it in an atmosphere of peace, and I shall use your good offices to invite President Bush to the celebrations next May."
Barak, according to a statement put out by his office, told Rice during their meeting: "There is a need to build a political horizon with the Palestinians and to ease their daily situation." But, he said, "The security of Israel's citizens is our first concern and obligation."
Greer Fay Cashman contributed to this report.