Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Israel snubs Ms Rice

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Israel snubs Condoleezza Rice
By Tim Butcher in Jerusalem

Condoleezza Rice received a humiliating snub from Israel yesterday when it refused her offer to act as negotiator between its government and the Palestinian authorities.

Condoleezza Rice was in Israel to meet with Mr Olmert and offer her services as negotiator
Miss Rice met with Mr Olmert in an effort to revive Middle East peace hopes

The American Secretary of State, who was attempting to kick-start final status talks on the creation of a Palestinian state during a visit to Jerusalem, was forced to postpone a press conference planned on Monday evening after tense discussions with the Israeli prime minister, Ehud Olmert.

With Israel refusing to give in, Miss Rice was forced to head back to Washington unable to announce any major breakthrough on the decades-old Israeli-Palestinian question.

America had hoped to be able to cite progress in the Middle East peace process as a counterweight to its regional unpopularity arising out of its troubled occupation of Iraq.

The problem from Israel’s point of view is that final status talks cannot begin while the current Palestinian unity government fails to meet international conditions of renouncing violence, recognising Israel and accepting all existing Israeli-Palestinian agreements.

The unity government contains independent ministers and others affiliated with Fatah, a movement Israel does negotiate with, but the fact that it is dominated by representatives of the Islaimist movement Hamas means it fails to meet the three conditions.

“These conditions are not Israeli conditions, but international conditions demanded by the international community,” said Miri Eisin, a spokesman for Mr Olmert. “Israel has made clear that when the conditions have been met, then Israel is willing to enter into full negotiations.”

When asked about Miss Rice’s offer to act as interlocutor, she said: “That was just one idea.

“Secretary of State Rice came with many diverse ideas and we are grateful for her direct involvement which is very positive and gives added momentum.”

Miss Rice read a prepared statement yesterday - 12 hours after the planned press conference was meant to be held - in which she sought to put the most positive spin her latest visit to the region, the fourth in the last four months.

She said Mr Olmert and Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian National Authority, had agreed to meet fortnightly to discuss day-to-day matters although she conceded final status talks were some way from starting.

“As I’ve noted before, we’re not yet at final status negotiations,” she said.

“These are initial discussions to build confidence between the parties.”

Mr Olmert already meets regularly with Mr Abbas. But the Israeli prime minister has had some harsh words for the Palestinian leader, accusing him of “breaking promises” over the creation of the new unity government.

Mr Olmert’s office said Mr Abbas had committed himself repeatedly to not forming a unity government until Gilad Shalit, the Israeli corporal captured by Palestinian militants last June, was released.

Israel is angry the unity government has been formed without Cpl Shalit’s release, in breach of Mr Abbas’s undertaking.

The focus of the Middle East peace process shifts to Saudi Arabia tomorrow, where the Arab League is due to meet with Israel-Palestine at the top of the agenda.

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