US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Sunday that it was important for Israel and the Palestinians to establish a "common agenda" to move forward on creating a Palestinian state - appearing to break ranks with Israel, which has ruled out peace talks for now. Rice also said all the parties need to have a "destination in mind" to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But she conceded the sides were far apart, and had no specific proposal to get long-stalled peace talks moving again. She spoke at a news conference with Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, after their first meeting since Hamas and Fatah formed a new coalition government last week.
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Rice said she would meet twice with both Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert during her fourth trip to the region in as many months.
"I think [the movement toward the establishment of a Palestinian state] can help all of us to have a destination in mind," Rice said. "I think this time it is best to talk about that political horizon in parallel. But I sincerely hope in the future the parties themselves can talk about the political horizon themselves."
Abbas said he was satisfied with the renewed US mediation efforts, which have not produced tangible results. Abbas said he talked with Rice about holding more meetings with Olmert. "All these meetings are part of the bilateral relations with Israel and the future vision that we are all seeking and working toward," Abbas said.
Abbas also spoke about IDF kidnapped soldier Gilad Schalit. "Schalit is in good condition. We hope he will return to his parents very soon." Abbas said. "I am responsible for releasing Schalit alive. But we need to remember that an integral part of the release is the release of Palestinian prisoners in return."
Earlier, visiting UN chief Ban Ki-moon said the time is not ripe to meet with officials from Hamas, dealing a setback to the new Palestinian Authority government's efforts to win international recognition.
Ban's comments came on a day of high-profile diplomacy, with the UN chief and US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice both in the region for talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders.
While welcoming the new government's formation, Ban said "the atmosphere is not fully ripe" for talks with Hamas, which has killed more than 250 Israelis in suicide bombings and refuses to recognize the Jewish state.
"At this time, I do not have plans to meet with [PA] Prime Minister Haniyeh or other Hamas Cabinet ministers," Ban said, expressing hope the new government's actions would "show a genuine commitment to the basic principles ... of peace." He spoke after a meeting with PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah.
The "Quartet" of Middle East peacemakers - the US, EU, UN and Russia - have demanded that Hamas renounce violence, recognize Israel, and accept past peace agreements.
The new government platform falls short of the conditions, though moderate Palestinians say it implicitly recognizes Israel by "respecting" peace agreements. Abbas, who hopes to restart peace talks with Israel, has said the deal is the best he can get from Hamas.
Palestinian officials rejected the notion of diplomatic cherry-picking.
"This government is one team," Information Minister Mustafa Barghouti said. "Whoever meets with one member is meeting with the whole government."
Ban is paying a first visit to the region as UN secretary-general. Rice was scheduled to meet later in the day with Abbas. Both hope their clout will help to prod Israel and the Palestinians to start talking peace again.
Ban's comments indicated the challenges the Palestinians still face in selling their government to the West.
"I expect that with this formation of the national unity government, the leaders of this government will abide by the principles laid out by the Quartet," he said. He said the principles represent "the international community."
Ban is scheduled to meet with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on Monday. He said he would urge the Israeli leader to release frozen Palestinian funds, ease travel restrictions in Palestinian areas and halt settlement activity in the West Bank.
Ban and Rice are in the area ahead of a high-profile Arab summit in Saudi Arabia this week where officials are expected to revive a 2002 Saudi proposal for a comprehensive peace between Israel and the Arab world.
Upon arriving in Israel on Saturday, the UN chief hailed new momentum toward resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict. "Our challenge is to weave these strands of potential into a fabric of tangible progress," he said.
The UN chief started his day Sunday visiting the Aida refugee camp near Bethlehem and inspecting Israel's security barrier in the West Bank.
Senior UN officials and the Palestinian governor of Bethlehem, Salah Tameri, explained to the UN chief the difficulties caused by Israeli travel restrictions and the barrier.
"This has strengthened my resolve and commitment to work for peace in the Middle East," Ban said. "This is a very sad and tragic thing to see many suffering from the construction of this wall, depriving opportunities for basic living."
Ban later met with parents of some of the more than 9,000 Palestinian prisoners held by Israel, and laid a wreath at the gave of longtime Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.