The US is attempting to renew talks between the Israeli and Palestinian leadership despite the crisis in Gaza, according to senior American officials.
Deputy National Security Adviser Elliot Abrams and Assistant Secretary of State David Welch left Washington Monday evening and will be holding talks with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. The visit was scheduled before the Gaza crisis broke out, but the US administration decided not to cancel the trip and to try to focus on getting Israeli and Fatah leaders to resume dialogue.
"The Israeli prime minister met briefly with Abu Mazen in Amman and spoke about opening a bilateral process. We would like to see such a process moving forward," a senior administration official told The Jerusalem Post Monday. The official stressed that the main immediate objective concerning the situation in the Gaza Strip is "to get Shalit released" referring to Cpl. Gilad Shalit who was kidnapped by Palestinians over two weeks ago.
The US is not commenting at this point on the proposal made by Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal, which called for a cease-fire and release of Palestinian prisoners in return for releasing Shalit and stopping the rocket attacks against Israel.
Israel has made clear to the US and to European countries that it is not interested in toppling the Hamas government and that the goal of the operation in Gaza is not the destruction of the Palestinian Authority. The official statement issued after Sunday's cabinet meeting in Jerusalem talks only about the "determination of new rules of conduct vis-a-vis the Palestinian Authority," as one of the goals of the operation and declares that Israel is not interested in reoccupying the Gaza Strip.
Up to now, the US has not played a significant role in trying to broker an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians regarding the Gaza crisis and has left the mediation efforts to other parties, mainly Egypt and Turkey. "We are not trying to manage it [the crisis] in remote control," said the senior official, adding that while the US did not set "red lines" for the military operation in Gaza, "our concerns are known to both sides." Among the concerns regarding the Israeli side are the humanitarian situation and the need to avoid harming civilians who are not involved in terror activity.
The US still believes that after the Gaza problem has been resolved, both sides should discuss the options for a long-term agreement seriously. According to diplomatic sources, Abrams and Welch would ask both sides about the actions they were willing to take to promote such a negotiation.
A senior administration official said that the US would like to hear more about Prime Minister Olmert's "ideas" regarding unilateral withdrawal from parts of the West Bank, but stressed the need to "explore what can be done bilaterally" as suggested in the May meeting between Olmert and President Bush at the White House.
The US is still putting part of the blame on the escalation in the region on Syria, which hosts the leadership of the Hamas. "The Syrian government must close the offices and the training camps of terror organizations and not provide shelter for terrorists," the senior official said, though he declined to elaborate about possible actions by the US if Syria refuses to act on these issues.