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Israeli-Palestinian summit ends with few signs of progress

SHARE Israeli-Palestinian summit ends with few signs of progress

JERUSALEM — Talks between Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and the Israeli and Palestinian leaders, initially billed as a new U.S. push to restart peace efforts, ended Monday with little progress other than a commitment to meet again.

In a 90-second statement following the two-hour meeting, Rice said the three discussed the changed political circumstances arising from a Palestinian power-sharing deal that includes Hamas militants.

Neither Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas nor Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert joined Rice as she delivered her statement, and she left the room without taking questions from reporters.

Rice said she would return soon, although she was not precise, and Olmert and Abbas said they would meet separately. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said there is no 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," he said following the meeting.

Speaking later, Olmert said he and Abbas agreed to maintain an open channel of communication "which would focus primarily on the need to improve the lives of the Palestinian people in various areas, and of course a continued war on terror by the Palestinian Authority — in practice — to bring terror to a complete halt."

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.

All sides had low expectations for the three-way session, particularly since last week's announcement that Abbas would govern hand-in-hand with Hamas. The Islamic Hamas group, which controls the Palestinian parliament, agreed to a power-sharing deal that fell short of meeting international demands.

The United States, Israel and the European Union count Hamas as a terrorist group.

Olmert said he "unequivocally" stressed the need for the Palestinians to accept the international conditions. But despite his dissatisfaction with the unity deal, he said he would maintain contact with Abbas.

"We have to maintain a channel of communications with the Palestinians, and the only possible conduit is the Palestinian president," Olmert said.

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.

Abbas, who accepts the Quartet conditions, has said that this is the best deal he could wrest from Hamas, and that he would move ahead with forming a coalition. The power-sharing deal is seen as crucial to halting deadly Hamas-Fatah fighting that has killed dozens in recent months.

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.

A third or more of the session was devoted to discussion of the planned coalition government between Abbas' moderate Fatah Party and the anti-Israeli Hamas faction. Hamas has refused to recognize Israel or back off other hard line positions, complicating both the run-up to Monday's meeting and any future prospects for peace talks.

The three leaders, meeting for the first time together, reaffirmed their commitment to the internationally backed "road map" peace plan. They agreed that a solution to the conflict will not be "born of violence," Rice said.

A U.S. official said later that the mood was "much improved" by the end of the meeting, with the two leaders leaving their talking points behind "and really having a conversation." The official spoke on condition of anonymity to describe the tenor of the closed-door session.

From the U.S. perspective, merely having the meeting was a significant step after more than six years of violence that blunted peace efforts. The Bush administration has been criticized at home and abroad for a seeming lack of commitment to the peace process, but Rice has said work toward a separate Palestinian state is a top priority for the balance of Bush's term.

Rice reported no progress in restarting talks on difficult issues that will define a future Palestinian state, such as borders, the fate of disputed Jerusalem and the right that Palestinians claim to return to homes they left when Israel was created.

Opening a new chapter on those questions was the ostensible purpose of the meeting when it was announced last month.

World powers have demanded that any Palestinian government recognize Israel, accept previous peace deals and renounce violence, but the coalition deal, forged earlier this month in Saudi Arabia, only pledges to "respect" past peace agreements.

Rice told U.S. journalists on Sunday night that Washington would "withhold judgment" on the coalition agreement until it was fleshed out. But she acknowledged that the outlines didn't meet the international conditions put forth by the Quartet of Mideast negotiators — the U.S., European Union, the United Nations and Russia.

"If there's going to be a Palestinian state, then the Quartet principles would obviously have to be recognized because ... this is the foundation for peace," she said.

"I haven't seen anything to date that suggests that this is a government that's going to meet the Quartet's principles, but you know...we will see once the government is formed," she said.

Abbas has said that this is the best deal he could wrest from Hamas, and that he would move ahead with forming a coalition. The power-sharing deal is seen as crucial to halting deadly Hamas-Fatah fighting that has killed dozens in recent months.

AP reporter Amy Teibel contributed to this report from Jerusalem.