Mideast summit ends with little progress
JERUSALEM – A Mideast peace summit designed to open a new chapter for Israelis and Palestinians fed up with violence concluded Monday with no new agreements and a pledge to keep talking.The United States, which had pushed for the session, said it was an accomplishment merely to hold such a get together for the first time in six years. After two hours of talks with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice stood alone in a bare-bones hotel function room to call the session “useful and productive.”The prospect of any immediate success here essentially was hijacked by Abbas’ surprise announcement last week that he will govern hand-in-hand with the militant group Hamas. The United States and Israel list Hamas as a terrorist group and refuse all dealings with the group.Speaking to reporters, Rice said the meeting was particularly valuable, however, in light of the lingering uncertainties over Abbas’ pact with Hamas.”I think the real value here is that they sat down to talk with each other pretty early in this process,” Rice said.”I could have made the decision that, well, I’ll just wait until this all sorts out,” Rice said, but she said that could have created new obstacles. “We thought it would be best to go ahead,” the secretary added.Neither Rice nor other U.S. officials would describe the content of the session, although Israeli and Palestinian officials offered some details.Olmert said he and Abbas agreed to maintain an open channel of communication, focused both on improving the lives of Palestinians and stopping terrorism.”What we have heard today has nothing to do with a partnership,” said Mohammed Dahlan, an Abbas confidant.”Abu Mazen is determined to go ahead with this national unity government. There is no backing down,” Dahlan said.Abbas has said that the deal brokered by Saudi Arabia is the best one he could get from Hamas, and that he would move ahead with forming a coalition. The power-sharing deal is seen as crucial to halting internal Palestinian fighting that has killed more than 130 since May.Abbas and Olmert also discussed possibly extending a 3-month-old cease-fire covering the Gaza Strip to include the West Bank, said Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat.Hamas spokesman Ismail Radwan called Monday’s summit a failure.”Rice did not succeed in pressuring President Abbas to withdraw from the unity government. We call on the U.S. administration to respect the Palestinian people’s will and recognize the government and open a dialogue with the government,” he said.A senior State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity to describe the closed-door session, said it was an “an irreplaceable opportunity to clear the air.”Meanwhile, Israeli police arrested three protesters who managed to enter the floor of the Jerusalem hotel where Rice is staying, a spokesman said.The three entered the hotel, climbed the stairs to the floor where Rice is staying and shouted before they were stopped by bodyguards, police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said. They called on the United States to free Jonathan Pollard, an American who is serving a life term in the United States for spying for Israel.Israeli police arrested the three before they got very close to Rice’s room, Rosenfeld said. It was not clear if Rice was in the room at the time, he said.The three-way meeting was planned before Abbas made his pact with Hamas. The gathering was meant to offer weary Palestinians a brighter vision for their future by opening a discussion of the contours of an eventual Palestinian state.It also was a way to strengthen Abbas in his power struggle with Hamas, which surprised the Bush administration by defeating Abbas’ secular Fatah Party in elections 13 months ago.Although U.S. officials brush off any suggestion the pact has tainted Abbas, diplomats have not hidden their displeasure with both the content and timing of the deal he made.Both the United States and Israel have said they will continue to deal with Abbas, although it is unclear how much authority he will command in the new government.The Bush administration resisted the troubled Israeli-Palestinian negotiations during Bush’s first term, but is displaying a new interest in the old problem. Rice said she understands that the United States plays a crucial role as host and prod, U.S. officials said.The Hamas deal shifted the ground for talks, but Abbas and Olmert agreed to meet separately soon and Rice said she will return quickly.There is no set date for another three-way meeting.”That’s a tool that everybody can pick up and use when everybody thinks its useful to do it,” State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said following the meeting.All sides had low expectations for Monday’s three-way session, even before last week’s announcement. The session was billed as a baby step to build confidence between two sides estranged by historic grievances and years of low-level fighting.The session got off to a lackluster start, with Rice, Abbas and Olmert clasping hands together and flashing polite smiles for the cameras in a spare hotel conference room.The three met without any aides, except for Rice’s Arabic interpreter, officials said.After about an hour, they moved to Rice’s suite overlooking Jerusalem’s Old City, continuing talks for another hour in a more comfortable setting. At one point the group walked onto Rice’s balcony, each with a view of some of the most revered and disputed real estate in the world.Many of the core questions that frame the hoped-for destination – an independent Palestine alongside Israel – apparently would not be on the table Monday. Those include the borders and the fate of disputed areas of Jerusalem.A third or more of the session was devoted to discussion of the planned coalition government.