Abbas: Peace is our strategic choice

However, PA president falls short of announcing resumption of talks at press conference with Rice.

Rice Abbas walk 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
Rice Abbas walk 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on Tuesday rejected Washington's demand to return immediately and unconditionally to the negotiating table with Israel, PA officials in Ramallah said. The officials told The Jerusalem Post that while Abbas was ready to resume peace talks, he was seeking assurances that Israel would refrain from further military operations in the Gaza Strip. They said Abbas was also demanding that a "comprehensive and mutual" cease-fire between the Palestinians and Israel be reached before the resumption of the negotiations. Abbas, according to the PA officials, told US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice during their meeting in Ramallah that he had no choice but to temporarily suspend talks with Israel in the aftermath of the recent IDF operation in the Gaza Strip. Abbas complained that Israel's military operations in Gaza were undermining his credibility among the Palestinians and driving more people into the arms of Hamas and other radical groups, the officials said. The PA leader also warned that his Ramallah-based government might lose control of the West Bank to Hamas if Israel launched a massive operation to reoccupy the Gaza Strip. In Washington, meanwhile, US President George W. Bush said there was "plenty of time" to get a Middle East peace deal before he leaves office on January 20, 2009. "This is a process that always has two steps forward and one step back," Bush said after meeting at the White House with Jordan's King Abdullah II. "We just need to make sure that it's just one step back." "Ten months is a long time," the president said. "It's plenty of time to get a deal done." He noted that Rice was pushing the Israeli and Palestinian leadership to resume talks. "I am optimistic that they can conclude tough negotiations," he said. "I'm still as optimistic as I was after Annapolis." Bush, noting his typical opposition to timetables, said he remained firm on getting a peace deal done: "There happens to be a timetable, as far as I'm concerned, and that is I am leaving office." Saying he was under immense pressure to completely halt peace talks with Israel, Abbas added that he was nevertheless committed to peace and negotiations as a "strategic choice" for the Palestinians. After his talks with Rice, Abbas pointed out that even senior members of his Fatah faction were now demanding that he suspend all contacts with the Israelis in response to the last IDF offensive in the Gaza Strip. "I don't think I would be able to resist the pressure if the Israeli aggression continues," a PA official quoted Abbas as saying during the meeting with Rice. Speaking to reporters, Abbas called on Israel to halt its military actions to pave the way for the resumption of the talks. "I call on the Israeli government to stop its aggression so that the necessary environment could be created to make the negotiations succeed," he said. "The region is witnessing dangerous developments that don't make us happy at all. We continue to maintain that the Israeli-Arab conflict can't be solved through violent means, but only through negotiations that are supported by the international community," Abbas said. "Extremists" on both sides were trying to halt the peace process, he said. "We won't allow them to achieve their goal." Rice said after the meeting that the two sides should be able to reach a peace agreement before the end of the year. "I still believe that that can be done," she said. "We look forward to the resumption of those negotiations as soon as possible." Earlier, Rice met in Cairo with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and discussed the situation in the Gaza Strip and US efforts to resume peace talks between the PA and Israel. Rice told reporters after the meeting that Hamas was trying to derail the peace process by continuing to fire rockets at Israel. "There has been an active peace process that can withstand the efforts of rejectionists to keep peace from being made; the people who are firing rockets don't want peace," she said. "They sow instability - that's what Hamas is doing. Hamas is doing what might be expected, which is using rocket attacks on Israel to arrest a peace process in which they have nothing to gain." Following her meetings in Ramallah, Rice met Prime Minister Ehud Olmert at his Jerusalem residence for a private dinner. She is scheduled to meet separately on Wednesday with Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, before flying out in the afternoon. The Prime Minister's Office did not release any information about Tuesday evening's meeting. The security cabinet is scheduled to meet on Wednesday, after Rice's departure, for a session in which Israel's overall military aims goals in Gaza are expected to be better defined. This includes whether the goals are "only" stopping the rocket fire, or whether they also include ending Hamas's military buildup and toppling the Hamas government there. The ministers are expected to be briefed on Rice's visit and the talks she had in Cairo and Ramallah. Meanwhile, Livni, in a comment made to ambassadors on Monday that appeared on the Foreign Ministry's Web site on Tuesday, was reported abroad as saying Israel might return to Gaza. In somewhat rambling remarks, Livni said: "We cannot afford a terrorist state, a failed state, like in Lebanon - because we have this past experience with a government that cannot control its territory, with an armed militia in its territory. Of course, we cannot afford this kind of extreme Islamic state controlled by Hamas, which is not only a terrorist organization, which represents this extreme Islamic ideology, Islamic resistance, without any connection to relations with Israel, without any connection to the fact that Israel left the Gaza Strip - by the way, not in order to come back, but we may find ourselves in a situation [in which] we have no other alternative." Although some were interpreting this as a threat to reoccupy Gaza, the Foreign Ministry refused to elaborate on the comment. In a more polished statement put out Tuesday on a meeting Livni held with visiting Turkish journalists, she seemed to backtrack a bit. "Israeli civilians are targeted on a daily basis from Gaza," she said. "Israel left Gaza, and there is no justifiable reason for these attacks." In this statement, Livni said nothing about having no alternative but to go back in. "Terror is terror is terror," she added, "and Israel will do everything in its power to stop these attacks, to strike at Hamas and to prevent it from increasing its strength." Olmert has said repeatedly that Israel has no intention whatsoever of once again taking control of the Gaza Strip.