JERICHO, West Bank – Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called on Israelis and Palestinians Thursday to step up efforts to achieve a long-stalled peace deal, saying neither side should take actions that would prejudge a final accord.
"Hopefully we can take this moment to accelerate our efforts and intensify our efforts toward the two-state solution that we all desire," Rice said at a news conference with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
Abbas said talks among Palestinians to achieve a national unity government aimed at ending an international aid boycott have reached a "dead end." Abbas, a member of the Fatah party, is trying to assemble a more moderate Palestinian government after elections in January handed Hamas control.
Hamas' support of terrorism and refusal to recognize Israel's right to exist prompted the United States, Israel and other nations to impose crushing economic sanctions.
Asked about Abbas' options now, Rice declined to get involved.
"That's for the president to decide — he's the elected official not me," she said.
Standing alongside Abbas, Rice addressed aspirations for a Palestinian state.
"The United States has made clear that we expect it to be a viable and contiguous state when it is created," she said. "Secondly, that no actions that are being taken now should prejudge the outcome of a final status agreement. That means very clearly that if actions are being taken now, they will not be considered by the United States to have prejudge the outcome of final status."
Rice also said Israel has obligations under the peace blueprint known as the road map. Requirements regarding Jewish settlements in the Palestinian territories are "clearly articulated," she noted.
From her meetings with Abbas, Rice headed to Jerusalem for sessions with Israeli Prime Minster Ehud Olmert and Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni.
Rice accompanied Bush during morning sessions concerning Iraq in nearby Amman before breaking away for her meetings later with the Palestinian and Israeli leaders.
"Our government strongly believes in the two-state solution," Bush said Thursday at a news conference attended by Rice. "I believe it's in the Palestinian people's interest that they have their own state and I believe it's in Israel's interest that there be a democracy on her border and therefore we're working to that end."
But he said extremists want to disrupt the peace process.
"The task at hand is to support moderate, reasonable people in their quest for free societies and that means that (Abbas), who I believe wants there to be a Palestinian state living side-by-side in peace with Israel, deserves the support of the world and he deserves support in peeling his government away from those who do not recognize Israel's right to exist," said Bush.
Olmert reached out to the Palestinians on Monday, saying he was prepared to grant them a state, release desperately needed funds and free prisoners if they choose the path of peace.
U.S. officials said they did not expect Rice to walk away with a long-term peace deal between the two sides. But her trip threw notable U.S. weight behind a cease-fire announced last weekend and bolsters the hope of renewed peace talks. The cease-fire ended a five-month Israeli military offensive in the Gaza Strip and the firing of rockets by Palestinian militants from Gaza into Israel.
A senior State Department official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly, said the United States would like to see the cease-fire extend beyond Gaza to the West Bank.
While U.S. officials are reluctant to express optimism about the prospects, a long-lasting political deal between Israel and the Palestinians — backed by several Arab countries — would be a considerable victory for the Bush administration and is widely considered a necessity to quiet violence throughout the region, including Iraq.
While most foreign policy experts and U.S. officials note the two issues — the war in Iraq and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — are inextricably linked, the State Department official said the United States is not approaching them as a package deal.
"We think these things ought to move ahead independently. If they moved ahead in tandem, that's always welcome as well," the official said. "But we're trying to achieve progress on all these issues not trading them off on each other."