RAMALLAH, West Bank – Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will meet Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank this week in an attempt to build on momentum from a new truce in volatile Gaza, officials said Tuesday.
The high-level meeting was announced a day after Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert called on the Palestinians to return to the negotiating table, saying his country would be willing to leave most of the West Bank to make way for an independent Palestinian state there and in Gaza.
Rice's visit would add U.S. heft to efforts to use the Gaza truce, which took effect Sunday, as a springboard for renewing long-stalled peace talks.
Abbas, speaking in Jordan following talks with King Abdullah II, said Olmert's initiative was a positive step.
Abbas said if Olmert's "intentions are good, then we can build on this (his initiative) in order to put forward a plan for future negotiations on all issues related to the Palestinian cause."
The secretary of state, who is accompanying President Bush this week on his trip to neighboring Jordan, will meet Abbas on Thursday in the West Bank town of Jericho, said Saeb Erekat, a top Abbas aide.
The U.S. Embassy said it could not confirm the meeting. Israeli officials said there were no plans for Rice to meet with Israeli leaders during her trip to the region. Olmert met with Bush and Rice in Washington two weeks ago.
The United States was the main engine behind the so-called "road map" peace plan, which calls for the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel. The plan foundered shortly after it was presented in 2003 amid infringements by both sides.
Subsequent efforts to get the sides talking again took another blow in January, when Hamas militants won Palestinian parliamentary elections, touching off crippling international sanctions meant to pressure the Islamic group to moderate its violently anti-Israel positions.
Tensions exploded in June with the capture of an Israeli soldier by Hamas-linked militants and an ensuing five-month Israeli military offensive in Gaza. But the cease-fire that went into effect early Sunday has significantly curtailed Palestinian rocket fire on Israeli towns bordering Gaza, raising hopes that peacemaking would follow.
In his speech on Monday, Olmert dangled the prospect of major confidence-building measures, including the release of frozen funds the Palestinians desperately need and freedom for some of the thousands of Palestinian prisoners Israel holds, should the Palestinians choose the path of peace.
"I hold out my hand in peace to our Palestinian neighbors in the hope that it won't be returned empty," Olmert said.
Olmert did not offer any new ideas about the thorniest issues dividing Israel and the Palestinians — borders, the status of disputed Jerusalem and a Palestinian demand that refugees and their descendants be allowed to return to sovereign Israel.
But the timing of the speech was important, coming a day after the truce and days before Bush headed to the region.
The cease-fire remains fragile, with militants firing at least 11 homemade rockets at Israel since the truce took effect.
Although Olmert has said Israel would respond with restraint, Defense Minister Amir Peretz warned there was a limit to Israel's patience.
"Whoever agrees to a cease-fire must be able to impose it," Peretz said. "Violations of cease-fire understandings will provoke a harsh response on our part."
Military officials said Israel has agreed in principle to let Abbas bring 1,200 Jordan-based Palestinian forces into Gaza to help monitor the cease-fire.
Also Tuesday, Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas left for his first trip abroad since he took office in March. Haniyeh was to visit Egypt, Lebanon, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Syria and Iran to seek political and financial support for his government.