US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice urged Israel and the Palestinians on Tuesday to resume suspended peace negotiations and said she believed a deal was was still possible by the end of the year.
Speaking at a news conference after meeting Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank city of Ramallah, she gave no indication, however, that she had secured his agreement to return to talks.
Later, Rice met with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in his Jerusalem residence. During the meeting the PM was expected to inform Rice that Israel will continue taking military action against Hamas.
A mere 24-hours before the National Security Cabinet is expected to convene in order to discuss Israel’s policy vis-à-vis the Gaza Strip, Olmert was also expected to inform Rice that he favors immediate recommencement of peace talks with moderate factions within the Palestinian authority. Moreover, the PM was expected to ask Rice for US aid in "jump-starting" peace talks unilaterally broken off by the Palestinians in wake of the IDF’s Operation "Warm Winter in Gaza.
Palestinian leader Abbas suspended negotiations on Sunday in protest at Israel's offensive in the Gaza Strip that killed more than 120 Palestinians before troops left on Monday. Israel said it would send forces back in if cross-border rocket attacks continued.
Abbas told the news conference he wanted a complete truce in the Gaza Strip and in the occupied West Bank, where Israel has carried out raids against militants it says are planning attacks.
Referring to Washington's hopes that a deal on establishing a Palestinian state could be reached before President George W. Bush leaves office in January, Rice said: "I still believe that that can be done."
She added: "We look forward to the resumption of those negotiations as soon as possible."
'No one can justify the killing actions'
Abbas said 20 children had been among dozens of civilians killed in Hamas-controlled Gaza in Israel's five-day assault, its most powerful in the territory since it withdrew settlers and its army in 2005.
"I call on the Israeli government to halt its aggression in order that we can afford the necessary atmosphere to conduct the negotiations," Abbas said, without setting any timeframe for resuming the talks on statehood issues.
He added that he still aspired to a deal this year but blamed the hiatus on Israel, which says it launched its assault to stem rocket fire by Hamas Islamists:
"No one can justify the killing actions of the Israeli army over the past few days," said Abbas, who also called for his Hamas rivals to stop firing rockets into southern Israel.
Rice, too, demanded that Hamas, which routed Abbas' Western-backed forces in Gaza last year, cease the rocket salvoes.
Before flying to Israel, Rice said during talks in Cairo that only negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority could lead to lasting peace.
US President George W. Bush said he remained optimistic that Israel and the
Palestinians could reach a peace deal before he leaves office, despite a recent surge in Middle East violence.
"Ten months is a long time. There's plenty of time to get a deal done," Bush said after White House talks with Jordan's King Abdullah on Tuesday.
Bush also said the goal of US diplomacy was to bring the two sides back to the negotiating table.
Progress in the negotiations, launched at a US-sponsored conference in the US city of Annapolis in November, has been stymied by fighting and Israeli settlement building on West Bank land where Palestinians want statehood.