Rice May Meet Separately With Olmert, Abbas on Mideast Trip

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Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice may confer separately with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas while she and President Bush are in the Mideast this week, but the U.S. is unlikely to broker a direct meeting between the Mideast leaders, a U.S. official said Monday.

Israeli officials also rejected the possibility of a summit between Abbas and Olmert on the sidelines of Bush's visit to neighboring Jordan later this week. Olmert spokeswoman Miri Eisin said the sides were discussing when the leaders would meet, but no date had been set.

A summit between Olmert and Abbas would represent a renewed push toward peace between Israel and the Palestinians, especially if the meeting carried the imprimatur of the United States. Moderate Arab states allied with the United States have been urging more forceful U.S. involvement, possibly including a three-way peacemaking summit in the mold of the groundbreaking Camp David accords.

Olmert, seeking to build on a shaky cease-fire with the Palestinians, offered Monday to reduce checkpoints, release frozen funds and free prisoners in exchange for a serious push for peace by the Palestinians.

Olmert said that if the Palestinians establish a new, moderate Cabinet committed to carrying out the U.S.-backed "road map" peace plan and securing the release of a captured Israeli soldier, then he would call for an immediate meeting with Abbas "to have a real, open, honest, serious dialogue."

In what was billed as a major policy speech, Olmert said Israel would also pull out of the West Bank and uproot settlements under a final peace deal.

Rice may see Olmert in Jerusalem and Abbas at his nearby West Bank headquarters on Thursday, the U.S. official said. He spoke on condition of anonymity because Rice's schedule is not definite. The official suggested that despite encouraging signs that both sides seem interested in new peace efforts, the United States does not want to rush a two- or three-way meeting.

A lasting peace deal between Israel and its Palestinian neighbors is one of Bush's main foreign policy goals, but it has seemed remote for much of his presidency. Bush is pledged to seeking an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel. Major obstacles include the fate of large Israeli settlements on land the Palestinians claim in the West Bank, and the future of Jerusalem.

Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan want the United States to resume its traditional role as shepherd or go-between for the two sides, arguing that resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is key to defusing other Mideast problems. Rice may meet with those Arab allies as well as other friendly Persian Gulf nations on the sideline of a Mideast democracy and development session in Dead Sea, Jordan this week. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict would be high on that agenda.

Olmert's offer to restart long-stalled peace talks came a day after the two sides began observing a cease-fire in the Gaza Strip. The cease-fire is meant to end five months of widespread violence in the coastal area.

Relations between Israel and the Palestinians, rocky after more than five years of fighting, further plummeted in January when Hamas won Palestinian parliamentary elections.

Israel cut off ties with the Hamas-led Cabinet and froze the transfer of hundreds of millions of dollars to their government to try to pressure the Islamic group to recognize Israel and renounce violence.

Tensions exploded in June when Hamas-linked militants captured an Israeli soldier in a cross-border raid, sparking a wide-scale Israeli offensive in Gaza that killed more than 300 Palestinians, scores of them civilians. Five Israelis have also been killed in the violence.