Nicholas Kralev
The Washington Times
May 5, 2008 - 5:15pm

Aides to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said yesterday that he is "depressed" by the lack of progress in negotiations with Israel and views President Bush's summit with Arab leaders this month as a crucial test for U.S.-brokered peace efforts.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, meanwhile, fought for his political life amid speculation he might be forced to resign. Mr. Olmert, the subject of at least two corruption inquiries, was questioned by police investigators Friday.

Despite his frustration, Mr. Abbas thanked visiting Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice for "exerting utmost efforts" to help Israelis and Palestinians reach an agreement to establish a Palestinian state.

"He is really depressed right now," one of Mr. Abbas' senior aides said. "When he goes to visit other Arab countries, he tells them that we negotiate with the Israelis on a daily basis, but we have nothing to show for it."

The aide, who asked that his name not be used because he was describing private conversations involving the Palestinian leader, said Mr. Abbas thinks Miss Rice is doing the best she can.

As Miss Rice headed for the Middle East, Palestinians accused Israel of blocking a $650 million investment in a new cellular-telephone network for the West Bank and of failing to meet a pledge to remove some roadblocks that prevent Palestinian travel between West Bank cities.

The Palestinian aide said the most pressing issue is whether Mr. Bush is willing to pressure Israel to stop expanding Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

"If the settlement issue is not resolved, any agreement [with Israel] Abbas brings to the Palestinian people they will not take seriously," the aide said.

Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni told reporters later in the day that settlements "are not obstacles" to a peace agreement and that "Israel has no hidden agenda."

Mr. Abbas said at a news conference with Miss Rice that the Bush administration is "very serious" about reaching an agreement by January.

But Palestinian officials and other politicians said Mr. Abbas has expressed doubts privately that Mr. Bush will truly press Israel to stop settlement activity.

Mr. Bush is expected to visit Israel for the celebration of its 60th anniversary next week and to meet with Arab leaders in Egypt to discuss the peace process.

"The Americans know that one thing they can do to prove that they are serious is to end settlement activity, but I don't think they will do it," said Mustafa Barghouti, an independent member of the Palestinian parliament.

Mr. Bush has said the Palestinian state should not look like Swiss cheese, but Mr. Barghouti insisted that is exactly "what is happening on the ground." He suggested that Mr. Abbas give Miss Rice a tour of those areas.

Even without a tour, Miss Rice had a packed schedule yesterday. In addition to meeting with Mr. Abbas in his Ramallah office, she had lunch with Ahmed Qureia, the chief Palestinian negotiator.

Earlier in the day, she had breakfast in Jerusalem with Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, and then held joint talks with Mr. Barak and Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, whom she had seen twice in London two days earlier.

After she returned from the West Bank, Miss Rice met with Mrs. Livni, the foreign minister, first alone, and then together with Mr. Qureia. She ended the day with dinner with Mr. Barak.

Before leaving Israel today, she is scheduled to have breakfast with Mr. Olmert, with whom she dined Saturday night. Mr. Olmert is set to hold talks with Mr. Abbas over lunch.

Miss Rice called the settlement activity "particularly problematic to the atmosphere of trust that is needed." Palestinian officials said that similar U.S. public statements in the past have had no impact on Israeli actions.

Analysts often have said Mr. Olmert's political woes make the timing of negotiations difficult, especially after police unexpectedly questioned the prime minister Friday over a corruption probe.

Israeli media quoted unidentified legal sources and unnamed political officials as saying the suspicions against Mr. Olmert were particularly serious and could force his resignation, a move likely to delay peace efforts he has pursued at U.S. behest, Reuters news agency reported in a dispatch from Jerusalem.

"I answered all questions I was asked. I cooperated with the investigators," Mr. Olmert said in his first public remarks about his latest interview by police. "I have an agenda as Israel's prime minister. I intend to carry on with this agenda."

Mr. Olmert, 62, has denied any wrongdoing.

Mrs. Livni said "investigators must be given a chance to finish their job" in the corruption inquiry.

"There are all kinds of rumors going around from 'those in the know,' and these rumors are grave and malicious," Mr. Olmert said before his weekly Cabinet meeting. "Once the authorized channels make things clear, this will return to normal proportions."


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