U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice wrapped up a three-day trip to the Middle East with an agreement from Israeli and Palestinian leaders to hold meetings every two weeks. VOA's Jim Teeple reports from Jerusalem, that Secretary Rice also called on Arab states to work towards normalizing relations with Israel.
After a three-day trip to Israel and the Palestinian territories, that included a side-trip to the Jordanian capital, Amman, Secretary Rice says Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas have agreed to hold meetings every two weeks.
"I delighted they are going to talk and they are going to talk often," she said. "And when people talk often, and they are serious people as Prime Minister Olmert is, and President Abbas is they will have a meaningful discussion about their future, and again, they have opened doors and not closed them."
Secretary Rice says the talks will focus on what she describes as benchmarks for future progress. They will include the issue of stopping Palestinian rocket fire from the Gaza Strip into Israel and progress on easing Israeli restrictions on the movement of Palestinians in the occupied West Bank. Israel has agreed to ease roadblocks in the West Bank and Palestinians have agreed to a ceasefire with Israel in the Gaza Strip, but Secretary Rice says more needs to be done to make the agreements work.
"I have concerns that the movement and access agreement even though it is moving forward is not having the overall effect on the lives of Palestinian people that it might. And I have concerns that the ceasefire is not having the effect on security of Israelis that it ought to," Rice said. "So I fully expect that when the parties meet bilaterally they are going to talk a lot about how to make life on the ground better for Palestinians and Israelis."
Rice says the talks should lead to discussions on a political settlement. But she says final status negotiations are a long way off. She says she intends to return to the region on a regular basis to help the talks proceed and that she and President Bush both believe negotiations towards the establishment of a Palestinian state should have a chance to succeed.
Saeb Erekat the chief Palestinian negotiator with Israel said Tuesday he welcomed the Rice trip saying it had helped to ensure that future talks would include discussions on a final-status deal for the Palestinians. Senior Israeli officials say for now, any talks between Mr. Olmert and Mr. Abbas will focus on humanitarian issues.
Israel says it will not deal with the new Palestinian government until it agrees to renounce violence, recognize Israel and respect past peace agreements.
Rice also says she welcomed Arab diplomatic efforts in the region. She says Arab governments need to offer more economic assistance to Palestinians, and offer Israel a political horizon for normalizing relations.
"Just as Israelis and Palestinians must clarify a political horizon together, the Arab states must clarify a political horizon for Israel," she said.
Rice's trip to the Middle East is one of several ongoing diplomatic efforts under way in the Middle East. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki moon has just ended a fact-finding mission to Israel and the Palestinian territories, and Arab heads of state begin two days of meetings Wednesday in the Saudi capital, Riyadh. The summit is expected to revive a 2002 Saudi Arabian-sponsored peace plan that offers Israel Arab diplomatic recognition in exchange for withdrawing to its 1967 borders.