Rice Holds Judgment on Israel Border Plans

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is pointing to the secular Palestinian president as a figure of moral authority in contrast to the rest of the new Islamist-led government, and not ruling out U.S. support for territorial choices Israel may make without consulting the Palestinians.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas remains in office despite the defeat of his moderate Fatah Party in Palestinian elections. He swore in 24 new Cabinet ministers from the militant Islamist group Hamas on Wednesday, including 14 who served time in Israeli prisons.

"I think that he still is someone who stands for the aspirations of the Palestinian people for a peaceful resolution of Palestinian-Israeli conflict, someone who still stands for a rejection of terrorism and violence as a way to end that conflict," Rice told reporters on her plane en route to Germany, where she arrived early Thursday.

"I think there's considerable value in that," she said.

Rice also accused Iran of pursuing a "salami tactic," in expanding the scope of what it claims is a peaceful nuclear program one rhetorical slice at a time.

Rice is in Europe for talks on Iran's nuclear ambitions.

The top U.S. diplomat entered discussions with the permanent members of the Security Council strengthened by a partial victory at the United Nations in New York, where Iran allies Russia and China signed on Wednesday to a written rebuke of the clerical regime.

The U.N. Security Council demanded that Iran suspend uranium enrichment, the first time the powerful body has directly urged Tehran to clear up suspicions that it is seeking nuclear weapons.

The modest statement did not go as far as the United States had wanted. It is not legally binding and carries no explicit penalties for Iran if it does not comply, but Rice said it is an important first step. The Security Council could eventually impose economic sanctions, though Russia and China say they oppose such tough measures.

Thursday's meeting of foreign ministers in Berlin will focus on what to do next, and much depends on Iran's reaction to the Security Council's opening move, Rice said

"This isn't a time to try and come to a conclusion about what the next step is, it's an opening discussion about those next steps," Rice said. "I would not at this point carve in stone anybody's decisions about what next steps might be."

Rice said she will also discuss the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the war in Iraq during meetings with leaders in Germany and France. Rice then spends a long weekend as the guest of Britain's foreign secretary in the northern England district he represents in Parliament.

Wednesday's formal takeover by Hamas came one day after elections in drew clear lines of confrontation.

Hamas says it will not soften its violent platform, which includes refusal to recognize Israel's right to exist and maintenance of what Hamas calls armed struggle against an occupier.

Israel's victorious Kadima Party says if that is the case, Israel will set the borders of a Palestinian state itself, without negotiations sought by the United States and others, and keep large areas of the West Bank that Palestinians see as rightfully theirs.

Rice noted that Washington backed Israel's unilateral decision last year to pull out of the Gaza Strip, and that Israel ended up coordinating the withdrawal with the Palestinian Authority. The Palestinian government was then fully led by Abbas and Fatah, and Israel by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who was felled by a stroke in January.

"I wouldn't on the face of it just say absolutely we don't think there's any value in what the Israelis are talking about," Rice said. At the same time, the United States won't say now that it will back further unilateral moves until it knows more about them. Rice said.