Sue Pleming
February 29, 2008 - 6:02pm

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice travels to Israel and the Palestinian territories next week, with U.S. credibility at stake and peace talks stymied by escalating violence in Hamas-run Gaza.

Three months ago, Israelis and Palestinians pledged at a peace conference in Annapolis, Maryland, that they would seek a deal by the end of the Bush administration in January 2009.

The window is fast narrowing and diplomats and experts note talk has become more vague, with suggestions of only a framework agreement by year-end, or a so-called "shelf agreement" that could be dusted off by the next president.

But a senior U.S. official said it was too soon to write off prospects of a deal and Rice's goal on this trip would be to keep talks moving between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and pro-Western Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

She also will try to get both sides to take immediate steps to improve security on the ground, particularly in Gaza, which was seized by the Islamist group Hamas last June. Abbas's Fatah forces control the West Bank.

"It is very difficult to insulate the negotiations process from these other events. Concern has been growing about that," said the senior official, who spoke on condition he was not named because the issue is so sensitive.

"That means pushing both sides to get some steps that will give people a sense that there is a positive story here rather than what we are seeing right now which is quite negative."

Rice is expected to lean on Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak to concede to Abbas's demand to ease checkpoints in the West Bank and give Abbas's forces more responsibility. But officials said she would make clear U.S. support for Israel's right to defend itself.


Rice's first stop is due to be Cairo on Tuesday where she wants answers over how Egypt will secure its border with Gaza after hundreds of thousands of Palestinians breached it last month to buy goods unavailable due to an Israeli blockade.

Hamas has increased its rocket attacks into Israel from Gaza, leading to more attacks from Israel and mounting fears that a full-scale conflict could be near.

Egypt has been seeking a cessation of hostilities from Hamas and assurances from Israel it would stop its attacks if the Islamists ceased theirs, an Arab diplomat said.

"The Israeli position is that a cease-fire would work only if it dealt with ending the rocket fire and no further development of the military infrastructure of Hamas," the diplomat said.

"Hamas wants a cease-fire which includes ending targeting killings (by Israel) of their politicians," he said, adding discussions were complicated by talk of a prisoner exchange.

Former Israeli negotiator Daniel Levy said it was important for Rice to send a strong message to the Egyptians, either publicly or privately, that the United States supported a cease-fire between Hamas and Israel.

"The surest way to collapse Annapolis is you allow this escalation in Gaza to continue," said Levy, now with the New America Foundation.

The senior U.S. official said Hamas wanted a "steady drumbeat" of violence. "They (Hamas) may sense that something is going on the negotiations front and this is their version of showing up for business," he said.

But diplomats and experts say the peace talks -- which are meant to deal with the toughest issues of Jerusalem, borders and refugees -- have been moving at a slow pace.

Several documents are being discussed and there is pressure to have something to present when President George W. Bush visits Israel in May to mark Israel's 60th anniversary.

"If I were a betting man, I would say that it is possible that by the fall for these two guys to have produced a few pieces of paper which may not be implementable but nonetheless possible," said Aaron Miller, a former U.S. Middle East negotiator who has a book on the subject coming out in April.

But the Arab diplomat was less optimistic and said Palestinians must get some dividends for there to be any faith in the process. "There has not been a lot achieved," he said.


American Task Force on Palestine - 1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 725, Washington DC 20006 - Telephone: 202-262-0017