Rice: ME peace still possible in 2008

Says Israel has a right to defend itself, but that it must consider effect of ops on civilians.

Rice 224.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
Rice 224.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Tuesday she would work toward resumption of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations as soon as possible, saying Hamas was trying to wreck chances for the peace process. Rice made the comments after talks with Egyptian officials in Cairo on a stopover before heading to Israel, trying to rescue peace talks after an IDF offensive that killed more than 100 Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. Israel launched the offensive to stop rocket attacks by Hamas on southern Israel, but the operation prompted Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to suspend negotiations. "There has to be an active peace process that can withstand the efforts of rejectionists to keep peace from being made, the people who are firing rockets do not want peace," Rice told reporters in Cairo. "They sow instability, that is what Hamas is doing." Rice backed Israel's right to respond to the rocket fire, but said it must avoid causing civilian casualties. "The rocket attacks against innocent Israelis in their cities need to stop. This can't go on. No Israeli government can tolerate that," she said. But the Israelis "need to be aware of the effects of those operations on innocent people." She said Hamas, which took over the Gaza Strip last July, is armed "in part" by Iran and underlined the need for the United States and the West to train and develop the PA security forces loyal to Abbas, whose government controls the West Bank. "Hamas gets armed by the Iranians and if nobody helps to improve the security capabilities of the legitimate Palestinian Authority security forces. That's not a very good situation," she said at a press conference with Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit. On her way to the Middle East, Rice said she still thinks the two sides can reach a deal for Palestinian statehood this year. "I do think that negotiations ought to resume as soon as possible," Rice told reporters on her plane. "I understand that the situation has been complicated. But the longer the negotiations are not ongoing or the longer that they are suspended, if that's what one wants to call it, the more it is a victory for those who don't want to see a two-state solution." Rice declined to call for a cease-fire, which many Israelis think would legitimize Hamas and its hold in Gaza. Egypt's Aboul Gheit, whose country has sought to isolate Hamas, also stopped short of calling for a cease-fire. He said Egypt was seeking to convince Israel "not to resort to excessive use of force ... The imbalance of power (between Hamas and the Israelis) must be taken into account." He said Egypt also urges the Palestinians to halt rocket fire. In Egypt, Rice was also asking President Hosni Mubarak and other officials for help controlling Gaza's small border with Egypt, site of a border breach in January that became something of a public relations coup for Hamas. Some Israeli military analysts think the more sophisticated longer-range rockets fired at the Israeli city of Ashkelon in recent days probably came into Gaza during the week that fences with Egypt were down. Rice was also looking for ways to speed aid into Gaza, sealed off for months by a blockade imposed on the territory.. She said proposals from Egypt and the Palestinians to reopen a monitored border crossing point have merit.