Abbas rejects temporary agreement

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. Bush’s top diplomat tried to assure Palestinians on Sunday she has heard their demands for a stronger US hand to guide peace efforts with Israel. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, however, offered no new plans and gave few clues to how she views recent initiatives proposed by others.

“I have heard loud and clear the call for deeper American engagement in these processes,” she said after meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. “You will have my commitment to do precisely that.” Seeking to strengthen Abbas in his power struggle with the Palestinian Hamas faction, Rice said it is time “to look at the political horizon and begin to show to the Palestinian people how we might move towards a Palestinian state”. A proposed $85 million grant to train and equip the historically troubled security service loyal to Abbas would come with strings attached, Rice said. A State Department official said none of the money would go to purchase weapons. Abbas promised the money would not be misused.

The Palestinian leader, whose Fateh faction lost elections a year ago to Hamas, said the weapons were needed to impose order after weeks of Fateh-Hamas fighting that has killed 35 people.

In violence Sunday, Israeli soldiers opened fire on two Palestinian fighters carrying an explosive device near the Gaza-Israel border fence near the vital Erez crossing, the military said. The explosive detonated, apparently killing the two.

Despite signs of life in the moribund Israeli-Palestinian peace process, Rice encountered scepticism from both sides in two days of meetings with Israeli and Palestinian leaders.

Abbas rejected one idea Sunday that Israel considers promising: the establishment of a provisional Palestinian state in temporary borders.

Abbas also complained to Rice that Israel has not followed through on promises made at his much-awaited meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert last month.

Israeli media reported that hardline deputy prime minister, Avigdor Lieberman, told Rice that the Israeli army will have to reenter the Gaza Strip at some point, and that 30,000 UN troops are needed to secure the chaotic Palestinian territory on Israel’s southern flank.

Lieberman has in the past said Israel should assassinate Hamas’ leadership, ignore the moderate Palestinian president and walk away from international peace efforts.

His ideas do not necessarily carry weight, but Rice defended the decision to meet with him.

“I’m going to enlist the support of anybody I can to try and move forward a Palestinian state living at peace side by side with Israel,” Rice said. “That is the goal here.” Rice tried to lower expectations for talks meant to help frame possible peace initiatives for Bush’s remaining two years in office. Various ideas under consideration would rearrange elements of a US-backed peace plan dormant since its release in 2003.

Rice said the United States wants to “accelerate” the peace plan, but she has not given specifics.

The plan envisions a three-stage, three-year programme to create an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. The step-by-step approach seeks specific concessions from both sides before moving to new issues, meaning it quickly can bog down if the conditions are not met.

Before Rice arrived, Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni had seemed to endorse the notion of skipping some of the elements of the plan’s first phase and jumping to the second phase, which would set up a placeholder state with temporary borders.

Livni gave a much vaguer description of that idea in a session with Rice on Saturday. Although Rice has not ruled it out, she has not explained how it would fit into the overall deal.

Palestinian officials in recent weeks have grown wary of the idea, believing it would enable Israel to usurp much of the West Bank, where Israel continues to build Jewish settlements.

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