JERUSALEM – The Israeli and Palestinian leaders will meet every two weeks in discussions aimed at paving the way for a final settlement to the Middle East conflict, officials said Tuesday, in a small sign of momentum for the latest U.S. push to restart peace efforts.
The visiting U.S. secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, announced the planned biweekly meetings at the end of a swing through the region, her fourth in as many months. Although the talks will begin with modest day-to-day issues, they signaled a deeper U.S. commitment to bring the sides together after a six-year lull in peace efforts.
"The Israelis and Palestinians are taking the initial step on the path to peace, and the American role will include helping them to overcome obstacles, develop new ideas, and rally international support for their efforts," she said.
She spoke after three days of shuttling between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Relations between the men have worsened since Abbas, a moderate who favors peace talks, formed a coalition government with the Islamic militant Hamas earlier this month.
Israel, the U.S. and the European Union consider Hamas a terrorist group because of its history of suicide bombings that killed hundreds of Israelis. After the new government took office, Olmert ruled out peace talks, saying contacts with Abbas would be limited to humanitarian issues.
Rice said in the current climate, getting the sides to widen the scope of their discussions was more than she expected.
"They achieved something, which is the very regularized meetings between the two of them, in which they will not just talk about their day-to-day issues, but also about a political horizon," she said, explaining the talks could help build confidence to smooth the way for talks on a final peace deal.
Still, she said the time was not yet ripe to discuss the specifics of such an accord.
Palestinian officials expressed disappointment, saying little had been accomplished.
"There was no need for a visit by Rice to get them to hold a meeting," said Nabil Amr, Abbas' media adviser. "The problem is not holding these meetings. The problem is that these meetings are not productive because Olmert is not ready for a productive and meaningful peace process."
Olmert's spokeswoman, Miri Eisin, said Rice brought "many new ideas" that could be a "basis to get into a renewed negotiation process." She warned, however, "we're not there yet."
"When you schedule regular meetings, you allow both sides to bring everything out. You're not going to sit and talk about final status issues," Eisin said. "But you are going to bring up how you think you can go forward."
In addition to displeasure over the unity government, Israeli officials have repeatedly criticized Abbas' inability to deliver on key issues, such as pledges to halt militants' rocket attacks or winning the release of an Israeli soldier captured by Gaza militants last June.
Rice said the U.S. would set benchmarks for implementing a cease-fire, including the halting of rocket fire, and for improving the flow of Palestinian travelers and goods through Israeli-controlled crossings.
She said she believes it is possible for an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal to be reached before U.S. President George W. Bush leaves office in January 2009.
The trip came just ahead of a critical Arab League summit in Saudi Arabia beginning Wednesday. The Arab countries are expected to relaunch a broad 2002 Saudi peace offer to Israel — a development Rice welcomed.
"The Arab states should begin reaching out to Israel, to reassure Israel that its place in the region will be more, not less, secure by an end to the occupation and the establishment of a Palestinian state, to show Israel that they accept its place in the Middle East," she said.
Rice said her task had been complicated by the formation of the new Palestinian government. Hamas has refused to accept three international demands — recognition of Israel, renunciation of violence and acceptance of previous peace deals with Israel.
Abbas has said the unity deal was necessary to avert Palestinian civil war and is best he could get from Hamas. While falling short of international demands, many Palestinians say the unity deal implicitly recognizes Israel by pledging to "respect" past peace agreements.
In an apparent gesture to Israel, Rice shunned all members of the new Palestinian Cabinet, including non-Hamas moderates, during her visit.
Danny Ayalon, Israel's recently retired ambassador to the U.S., said Rice made an important accomplishment simply by getting the two sides to keep talking. But, he said, "there was no substance in terms of bringing a political settlement closer."