Rice Announces Israeli, Palestinian Talks on Mideast Road Map

By Stephen Kaufman
USINFO Staff Writer

Washington - Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said she, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert will hold “an informal set of discussions” on broad issues concerning the plan aimed at establishing a Palestinian state that lives at peace with Israel.

Speaking with reporters January 15 with Egyptian Foreign Minister Aboul Gheit in Luxor, Egypt, Rice said it would be the first time in “at least six years” that the two sides will discuss issues regarding a two-state political solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“I appreciate very much that Prime Minister Olmert and President Abbas, within the context of the road map, want to start that discussion,” she said.

The so-called road map plan was released in April 2003 and specifies the steps for the Palestinians and Israelis to take to reach a settlement, and a timeline for doing so, under the auspices of the Quartet - the United States, the European Union, the United Nations, and Russia. (See text of document.)

Rice said she hoped her talks with both leaders during her current trip to the region “will lead to further work on a political horizon for the Palestinian people that would lead, ultimately, to the establishment of a Palestinian state.”

Rice said she did not have a date for when the two leaders would begin meeting, but a senior State Department official told reporters January 16 that a three-way meeting involving Rice, Abbas and Olmert would occur “in weeks rather than months.”

The secretary said she did not wish to “rush to formal negotiations before things are fully prepared,” including the Israeli and Palestinian publics, but added “that doesn't mean that there can't be progress as we're moving along.” (See related article.)

She said a “developing, fruitful” bilateral channel now exists between the two leaders that the United States has “no intention of supplanting,” and the U.S. officials will participate in future meetings only “when American presence is needed.”

In subsequent remarks with Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Saud al-Faysal in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, January 16, Rice said Syrian behavior, including its support for extremist groups, is causing it to exclude itself from participating in regional peace efforts.

“[A]ll of those [extremist] forces find support in Syria … particularly in Lebanon where the Syrian forces left Lebanon because of the pressure of the Lebanese people and the international pressure, and where I think Syria remains unreconciled to the fact that it is no longer in Lebanon,” she said.

She said the “seeds of progress” represented by the Lebanese government of Prime Minister Fuad Siniora and Palestinian President Abbas are threatened by such groups

Foreign Minister Saud said his government is working with the United States to support Siniora’s government, including participating in the donor’s conference that will be held in Paris.

Lebanon, he said, “represents a model for the coexistence between the segments and factions, different factions,” and he said maintaining Lebanon’s “stability, sovereignty and security … has a feedback on the region and the entire world [because] Lebanon represents this peaceful coexistence between the different segments.”

In her remarks in Egypt, Rice said the January 15 executions of two of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s top aides were done “according to Iraqi processes and Iraqi law,” but that the circumstances, including where one was decapitated due to hanging “did not reflect well on the Iraqi government.”

“I would be the first to say that we were disappointed that there was not greater dignity given to the accused under these circumstances,” Rice said.

During her talks with Foreign Minister Gheit, she discussed President Bush’s recent decisions concerning U.S. support for Iraq’s government, and said Egypt and the United States “share risks and we share responsibility,” since Iraq’s future will affect the entire region.

She said the Bush administration seeks a “common strategy” with moderates in the region and in Iraq, whom it sees as its “natural allies in stabilizing Iraq.” These moderates could help Iraq remain unified and able to defend itself against foreign influences, “including influences that may be there from Iran,” Rice said.

Gheit said Egypt is supportive of Bush’s plan in hopes that it will ensure “the stability, the unity and the cohesion of the Iraqi government.”

“We are hopeful that the plan would lead toward the dismantlement of whatever terror organizations as well as the military militias that are tormenting the Iraqi scene,” he said.

The Egyptian foreign minister also called for the Iraqi government to pass constitutional amendments that will facilitate “all Iraqi colors and all Iraqi forces to be on board on the process.”

A transcript of the remarks by Rice and Gheit and a transcript of her remarks with Saud are available on the State Department Web site.

For more information on U.S. policy, see The Middle East:  A Vision for the Future and Iraq Update.