|Rice Meets with Middle East Leaders at "Most Promising Moment"|
Secretary confers with Sharon, Abbas on eve of summit
Washington -- Taking advantage of what she called "the most promising moment for progress between Palestinians and Israelis in recent years," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice held two days of "intensive and productive" discussions with Israeli and Palestinian leaders on a visit to Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Ramallah February 6 and 7.
Rice's visit came on the eve of direct talks between Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas at Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, on February 8.
After meeting with Sharon February 6, Rice told David Hawkins of CBS News that the prime minister was aware that "this is a time of opportunity to be seized." She said the possible implementation of Israel’s plan to disengage from Gaza and four settlements in the West Bank would be "the first significant return of territory to the Palestinians since 1967." The secretary also addressed the issue of a controversial Israeli security fence intended to keep out attackers, stating that it should "not look as if it is some kind of political statement about how final status should work."
When asked by Hawkins about the impact of any gains the militant group Hamas might make in upcoming Palestinian parliamentary elections, Rice pointed to Abbas' overwhelming victory in the presidential election in January as evidence that the majority of Palestinians "are not prepared to have a government that is going to sustain the violence that is at the root of the sorrows and the troubles that they have had ... they want a viable and democratic state."
In another interview, Shireen Younes of Abu Dhabi TV asked the secretary about Israel's emphasis on security going forward, while the Palestinians seemed more focused on Israel withdrawing from their territories. Rice countered that the security issues are crucial for the Palestinians as well: "a better security environment ... will make it possible for the Palestinians to resume a more normal life in terms of commerce, in terms of the freedom of movement." The secretary added that the Palestinians would "find very good partners in the international community," as a result of efforts by the European Union, the World Bank and others.
On February 7 in Ramallah, Rice and Abbas held a joint press conference after their meeting. The secretary praised the Palestinian Authority president for "following through on his mandate" to restore order, and added that she was pleased about security coordination now taking place between Israelis and Palestinians, as well as other "constructive contacts."
Secretary Rice then announced that over $40 million would be provided over the next 90 days in a "quick action program" to make an immediate impact in such areas as job creation and private sector and infrastructure development. She looked ahead to the Sharm el-Sheikh summit, calling it an "extremely important step forward" and praised the Egyptian government for taking the initiative to host it.
Rice dismissed the necessity of a U.S. presence at the summit, stating that "not everything has to involve the United States, but the United States has to be there when it is needed. We will be very active ... with the parties on getting back onto the Road Map, which is a reliable guide … for two states living side by side in peace."
Just before her departure from Tel Aviv en route to Rome, the secretary said she had conveyed invitations from President Bush to both Prime Minister Sharon and President Abbas to meet with him in Washington this spring, and that both had accepted. She also announced the appointment of U.S. Army Lieutenant General William Ward as senior U.S. security coordinator. General Ward's mission will be to assist the Palestinian Authority in their efforts on security, as well as to encourage resumption of Israeli-Palestinian cooperation in that area.
The secretary departed the region vowing "the United States is determined to do all that we can to take advantage of this moment of opportunity in the weeks and months ahead."
The State Department's transcripts of Rice's remarks in Jerusalem, Ramallah, and Tel Aviv and are available at:
Interview with David Hawkins of CBS News:
Interview with Shireen Younes of Abu Dhabi TV
Remarks With Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas after their meeting:
Remarks to the Press at Ben Gurion Airport, Tel Aviv