"In the current situation it is impossible to reach a political settlement with the Palestinians," Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said on Tuesday night. Livni told Kadima supporters at a rally in Netanya that the new Palestinian Authority unity government was not abiding by the conditions set by the Quartet and that PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas was "disappointing, especially because he failed to condition the formation of the new Fatah-Hamas coalition on the release of captured IDF soldier Cpl. Gilad Schalit." Livni noted that Israel had emphasized to the Palestinians that they still needed to implement the first stage of the road map, which was the abandonment of terror. Earlier Tuesday, a senior Israeli diplomatic official said that for the first time since 2000, Israel and the Palestinians will begin regular discussions on all aspects of a future Palestinian state except for borders, Jerusalem and refugees.
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The official's comments followed US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's announcement at a Jerusalem press conference that Abbas and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had agreed to hold biweekly meetings.
Rice also sent a strong signal to Arab leaders convening in Riyadh for Wednesday and Thursday's Arab League summit to do their part to move the diplomatic process forward.
The senior Israeli official said the talks Rice set into motion would not focus on humanitarian and security issues, a reversal of the cabinet's decision on March 18 that the establishment of the new Hamas-Fatah unity government meant Israel would be limited in what it could talk about with Abbas, and those talks would continue "to advance security and humanitarian" issues.
The "most important thing to come out of Rice's visit," the official said, "was that the Israelis and Palestinians decided to resume talks on the parameters of future Palestinian statehood, on the characteristics of this statehood."
Israel's position, however, is that talking about Jerusalem, refugees and boundaries now would only be a recipe for failure and another round of violence. But, the official said, "the idea is to talk about everything else," and when there is progress on those issues, to go back and tackle the tough-nut core issues.
The talks will be carried out with Abbas, and not with the Hamas-led PA government. The official said that despite Abbas's weakness and "inability to deliver," there was need to talk to someone, and Abbas was the natural candidate.
The official said that detailed work on "realignment," a proposed unilateral withdrawal from much of the West Bank, prepared in 2006 by a Justice Ministry team headed by Aharon Abramovitch, who is currently the director-general of the Foreign Ministry, will be dusted off and serve as a basis for discussions with the Palestinians.
This Justice Ministry team, established when realignment was Olmert's game-plan, mapped out the ramifications of this move on a wide range of issues, from water to archeological sites, from economic issues to incitement.
The only thing this committee did not deal with was where the new border would run - but it looked at all the issues that would need to be dealt with when a new border was established. It was precisely these issues, the official said, that would now be discussed with the Palestinians.
Rice provided the rough outlines of the plan at a press conference she held Tuesday morning at the David Citadel Hotel in Jerusalem, just before leaving for Washington. The press conference was postponed by 12 hours, apparently because of Israeli objections to tackling final status issues with Palestinians.
Abbas and Olmert "have agreed that they plan to meet together biweekly. This very positive development builds on their previous meetings and will benefit both Israelis and Palestinians," Rice said, adding that she would meet periodically with Olmert and Abbas. "sometimes separately, sometimes together."
US officials said that she was expected to come to the region about once a month.
Rice said the Israeli-Palestinian meetings would "focus on two sets of issues. First, they will discuss immediate concerns, like movement and access, management of the passages, and preventing arms smuggling and rocket fire by terrorists in Gaza."
And secondly, she said, "The parties will also begin to discuss the development of a 'political horizon,' consistent with the establishment of a Palestinian state in accordance with the road map. As I've noted before, we are not yet at final status negotiations. These are initial discussions to build confidence between the parties."
Diplomatic officials in recent weeks have said that Rice's overall strategy seemed to be to keep the US actively involved and the parties engaged, even if Abbas cannot deliver much and Olmert's government is politically weak.
The rationale behind this, the officials said, was to prevent a vacuum that could be filled by others, and also an anticipation that something dramatic could change on the ground - like an Israeli incursion into Gaza as a result of a terrorist atrocity, a Palestinian civil war, or new elections in Israel - that could significantly alter the situation.
This analysis dovetailed well with what Rice told the press conference about laying the groundwork for negotiations that could take place at a more auspicious time.
Rice said that what happens very often in international politics "is that you put in the hard work up front and then there's an opening, an opening that perhaps you didn't expect at the time that you started; you don't really know when it's going to come; and all of a sudden, you can move forward much more quickly because a lot of the groundwork has been laid."
Rice, with her eye squarely on Riyadh, stressed the need for the Arab countries to play a supportive role right now.
"Regional states and members of the international community should participate actively in diplomacy to advance the achievement of peace. Applause at the end of the road will be welcome, but help now in moving down that road is far more important," she said.
"New thinking and new action will also be necessary on the part of Israel's neighbors," she added, giving Saudi King Abdullah special mention. She said his initiative from 2002 was an example of "such new thinking,"
"Now," Rice said, "at this critical moment, we look for our friends and partners of long-standing to build on this important initiative. Just as Israelis and Palestinians must clarify a political horizon together, the Arab states must clarify a political horizon for Israel."
Rice said these paths "do not substitute for one another, they reinforce one another. The Arab states should begin reaching out to Israel, to reassure Israel that its place in the region will be [made] more, not less secure, by an end to the occupation and the establishment of a Palestinian state." Bold, active diplomacy by the Arab world would "hasten the day when a state called Palestine will take its rightful place in the international community," she said.
This approach was one that Livni advocated at the AIPAC conference in Washington earlier this month.
Before boarding her plane back to Washington, Rice met in her hotel for 15 minutes with the families of kidnapped soldiers Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, and also with Defense Minister Amir Peretz.