JERUSALEM – U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met with Palestinian peace negotiators on Wednesday, hoping to persuade them to resume talks despite a spike of violence between Israeli forces and Palestinian militants in Gaza.
A day earlier, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas pointedly resisted Rice's pressure to return to the negotiating table, saying Israel had to first "halt its aggression" — a reference to recent military operations against Gaza rocket squads that killed more than 120 Palestinians over the past week, according to Gaza's Health Ministry.
Privately, Palestinian officials have said Abbas is open to renewing talks, but because of domestic pressures, will have to wait several days to do so. But before Rice met with Palestinian officials, on Wednesday, no such message had been delivered to her or Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, they said.
Much is expected to depend on the level of violence in Gaza in the coming days. Gaza was quiet Wednesday, and there were no reports of Palestinian rocket fire on southern Israel.
Rice met with Olmert late Tuesday and had meetings scheduled with Israel's foreign and defense ministers Wednesday before departing for Europe.
While urging Abbas to resume the talks, she also asked the Israelis to do all they could to avoid civilian casualties in Gaza. Israel's Yediot Ahronot newspaper also said she promoted the idea of a cease-fire between Israel and Palestinian fighters affiliated with Hamas, the Islamic group that rules Gaza.
After nightfall Tuesday, Israeli forces briefly entered southern Gaza, clashing with militants and killing a local Islamic Jihad leader. A 1-month-old baby was killed by a ricocheting bullet, Palestinian Health Ministry official Moaiya Hassanain said.
After meeting Abbas on Tuesday, Rice told a news conference that negotiations between moderate Palestinians and the Israelis are the only solution. At the same time, she defended Israel's right to seek out militants who use Gaza to launch rockets at southern Israel.
"I understand the difficulties of the current moment," she said. "We all must keep an eye on what is important."
Abbas is locked in a bitter rivalry with Hamas, which violently seized control of Gaza last June after routing his forces. Still, Abbas claims to be the leader of Gaza, and he suspended peace talks earlier this week to protest Israel's latest crackdown there. Palestinian hospital officials say more than half the dead in Gaza were civilians.
At Tuesday's news conference, Rice won no public promise that Palestinians would end their boycott soon. U.S. officials say they understand Abbas' political predicament and predict talks will resume after a brief lull.
He was not expected to relent before Rice left the Middle East.
"I call on the Israeli government to halt its aggression so the necessary environment can be created to make negotiations succeed, for us and for them, to reach the shores of peace in 2008," Abbas said.
He was referring to the goal — stated at a U.S.-sponsored Mideast peace conference in November — of reaching an Israeli-Palestinian peace treaty by the end of the year.
"No one can under any kind of pretext justify what the Israeli military have conducted over the past days," an angry Abbas told reporters, with Rice at his side.
The best Rice got from Abbas during their joint public appearance in Ramallah was affirmation that his government remains pledged to the peace path charted by Bush last fall. The negotiations are supposed to yield a deal outlining an independent Palestinian state this year.
The violence transformed Rice's scheduled mission. Instead of trying to encouraging the peace talks, she was forced to try to restore the talks.
The Bush administration has staked peace hopes on Abbas' West Bank government, while freezing out Hamas, which is pledged to Israel's destruction.
In Washington, U.S. President George W. Bush said he remains optimistic.
With only 10 months left in his presidency, Bush said Tuesday he still believes there is "plenty of time" to get a Mideast peace deal before his term ends.
"This is a process that always takes two steps forward and one step back," Bush said after meeting at the White House with Jordan's King Abdullah II. "We just need to make sure that it's just one step back."