Peace talks to freeze until PM cleared

Despite new political uncertainty, Condoleezza Rice holds full day of talks in Jerusalem and Ramallah.

rice abbas 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
rice abbas 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
There is unlikely to be any progress in Israeli-Palestinian talks until the political uncertainty created by the latest investigation of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is cleared up, senior government officials said Sunday after US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice held talks with both Israeli and Palestinian leaders. "Their head is not into it right now," one official said of Olmert and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who would take over from Olmert if he had to temporarily step down. "They have no patience for this right now." The official said that what Israel and the Palestinian Authority had achieved in their discussions up until now was where things would likely remain until the political uncertainty in Jerusalem was lifted. An aide to PA President Mahmoud Abbas was also skeptical about achieving a breakthrough in the wake of the new scandal, details of which are covered by a court-ordered gag order. "Olmert is facing many problems at home," he said. "We doubt if he would be able to focus on the peace talks while he's being interrogated by the police. Obviously, he has been weakened by the latest affair." Despite the new political uncertainty in Israel, Rice held a full day of talks Sunday in Jerusalem and Ramallah. At a press conference with Livni after their meeting, Rice said the investigation was an "internal matter for Israel," and that she intended to continue moving forward on the Annapolis process. Olmert, meanwhile, made his first public statement about the investigation Sunday, saying on camera before the weekly cabinet meeting that "the country has been swept with a wave of rumors regarding the investigation." Olmert said that once "matters are made clear," everything will be put into its proper proportion and context and "that this will put an end to the rumors." Until then, Olmert told the ministers, business would proceed as usual and he would "continue to hold the meetings, carry out the responsibilities and do the things that I must." As proof of this, Olmert mentioned that he had met with Rice Saturday night and that he was scheduled to meet her again Monday morning, followed by a lunch meeting with Abbas. "We will continue to deal with the issues on the national agenda and see to matters of state," Olmert said. Livni also related to the investigation during her press conference with Rice. Livni pointedly said nothing about Olmert, only that she believed in the absolute separation of powers when it came to enforcing the law. "The only right thing to do at this stage is to let those investigating and enforcing the law do their work," she said. While saying she had "full confidence" in the country's law enforcement apparatus, she did not say anything about the prime minister. "We are gathered here with the secretary of state within the framework of the discussions that I am holding [with the Palestinians], which is what I am dealing with and will continue to deal with in the coming days. At this stage, I have nothing to add, and it would not be right to add anything else," she said. The Prime Minister's Office, meanwhile, canceled Yom Ha'atzmaut interviews that were scheduled for Monday with Israel Radio, Army Radio and Ynet. The Prime Minister's Office said the interviews had been canceled because of the gag order on details of the investigation, and the inability of the PMO to expect that the media would not ask questions on the matter. Earlier Sunday, Rice met with Defense Minister Ehud Barak, and then together with Barak and PA Prime Minister Salaam Fayad to discuss Israel's roadblock obligations and what could be done to improve life for the Palestinians. She then went to Ramallah and met with Abbas, followed by a return trip to Jerusalem and an hour-long meeting with Livni. Rice then held a trilateral meeting with Livni and chief PA negotiator Ahmed Qurei for 90 minutes to discuss the status of the negotiations on a "shelf agreement" - that is, one that would only be implemented when certain conditions were met - for a Palestinian state. In the evening, Rice met again with Barak, who, according to Israeli diplomatic sources, she believes holds the key to removing West Bank roadblocks and dismantling illegal settlement outposts. Rice's Monday morning meeting with Olmert will be her last before heading back to Washington. Olmert and Abbas are scheduled to meet after her departure. PA officials, meanwhile, said after Rice's meeting with Abbas that the gap between the Palestinians and the Israelis remained as wide as ever. "US efforts to achieve peace are continuing, but what is needed is more than an effort," said Nabil Abu Rudaineh, spokesman for the PA presidency. "What is needed is American pressure on Israel to implement the road map, especially with regards to halting construction in the settlements and removing checkpoints [in the West Bank]." Abbas told reporters after the meeting that the road map, the Arab League peace initiative and US President George W. Bush's vision for peace in the Middle East formed the basis for solving all the final-status issues, ending the occupation and establishing an independent Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital alongside Israel. "We stressed during the meeting the need to halt settlement activities, including so-called natural growth, the removal of the settlement outposts, reopening closed PLO institutions in Jerusalem, lifting all the checkpoints and barriers, releasing all the prisoners and allowing deportees to return to their homes," Abbas said. "Both the Israelis and the Palestinians are racing against time in the peace talks. The negotiations are taking place almost every hour and every day and everyone is serious about them." Abbas expressed hope that the two sides would reach an agreement before the end of the year, although he did not rule out the possibility that the talks could fail. The PA, he said, wanted an agreement on all the stalled issues. "If we can't reach an agreement, we must think about the next step," he added. "But for now, we don't want to think about failure, which is also possible." Abbas said his security forces were determined to impose law and order in the West Bank and warned that anyone who tried to hinder their efforts would be held accountable. He also expressed hope that Egypt's efforts to achieve a cease-fire between Israel and the Palestinians would succeed. Abbas urged Hamas to end its "coup" in the Gaza Strip, saying he was prepared to hold early parliamentary and presidential elections to resolve the crisis. Rice said at a joint press conference with Abbas that she still believed that an Israeli-Palestinian peace treaty was possible in 2008. "We continue to believe it is an achievable goal to have an agreement between the Palestinians and the Israelis by the end of the year," she said. Rice criticized Israel's settlement policy as "particularly problematic to the atmosphere of trust that is needed." She added that she was pressing Israel to ease restrictions imposed on the Palestinians' movement, and urged the PA to increase its efforts to restore law and order and meet Israeli security demands. But Rice's optimism did not appear to be shared by most of Abbas's top aides. "It's unrealistic to talk about a peace treaty this year," one aide said. "We haven't seen real changes in the Israeli policy."