An American-sponsored meeting between Israeli and Palestinian leaders meant to start a new peace initiative after six years ended Monday with little more concrete than a promise to meet again.
For most of its period in office, the Bush administration has kept a hands-off stance in Arab-Israeli peace negotiations, but the meeting was evidence of a new commitment by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to try to improve a deteriorating situation.
Rice and her aides made it clear that her efforts had been complicated by the recent decision in principle of the Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas, to bring his Fatah faction into a unity government with Hamas, which Israel, the United States and the European Union consider a terrorist organization.
She suggested that if this meeting had not been scheduled beforehand, the Israeli prime minister, Ehud Olmert, might not have agreed to meet with Abbas, whom she praised nevertheless for supporting international and Israeli demands that the Palestinians recognize Israel’s right to exist, forswear violence and accept previously negotiated agreements with the Israelis.
Although Hamas has not agreed to any of those requirements, a new unity government may come closer to meeting them than the Hamas movement itself. But Rice said she doubted that such a government would come close enough to satisfy the Americans and the Israelis.
The joint statement read by Rice after two hours of talks on Monday with Olmert and Abbas was vague. The two men “discussed their views of the diplomatic and political horizon,” the statement said, and agreed to meet again soon.“
Neither Olmert nor Abbas appeared by Rice’s side as she read the statement, reflecting the tenuous nature of the talks, which appear to be so fragile that no side has even been willing to label them negotiations. One American official called them “an informal dialogue,” and the official statement referred to them simply as efforts.
The commitment from Olmert to meet again with Abbas is a minor victory for Abbas, known as Abu Mazen, because it signals that Israel will continue to deal with him despite his unity government plans.
Olmert said later: “There will be a dialogue, and we will continue the communication channel with Abu Mazen. We will not accept a situation in which we have no channels of communication with the Palestinian public, as I think this will be a dire mistake, all this without compromising over the principle we have established: not to conduct ties or acknowledge institutions that fail to endorse the basic principles which are the foundation to any future dealings.”
A top Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat, said Abbas had agreed to the unity government deal, signed in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, to end weeks of deadly fighting between Hamas and Fatah.