Top diplomats will push for progress toward peace in the Mideast

Thursday, August 2, 2007

JERUSALEM -- Top U.S. and Israeli diplomats said Wednesday they would push quickly for a political settlement with the moderate-led West Bank in spite of the bitter internal split among Palestinians there and in Gaza.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said they would not squander what each called a rare chance for progress in the 60-year-old conflict between the Jewish state and the Palestinians.

"Israel is not going to miss this opportunity," Livni said as Rice began her first visit to Israel since long-standing divisions among the Palestinians hardened into rival governments in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

The Bush administration, which has been exploring a renewed peace initiative for months, insists that what may seem to be a debacle is actually a moment of hope. In a few days of fighting in June, Islamic Hamas militants in Gaza routed badly organized forces loyal to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, a U.S. ally.

Abbas formed a new emergency government of like-minded moderates in the West Bank, which Hamas says is illegitimate.

"Ultimately the Palestinian people have to choose what kind of world they will live in, what kind of state they will have," Rice told reporters. "We do have in the Palestinian territories a government that is devoted to the ... foundational principles for peace, and this is an opportunity that should not be missed."

Livni, her Israeli counterpart, said the West Bank can be an example for cooperation or negotiation with Israel.

Their words confirmed what has been an increasingly obvious strategy: isolate the Hamas government in the Gaza Strip while lavishing money and political legitimacy on Palestinian President Abbas and his government.

Later, Rice discussed the matter with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, agreeing to "keep Hamas out of the game" on all levels, said Israeli government spokesman David Baker.

Israel has released frozen tax money as a sign of good will, and in a symbolic gesture has freed hundreds of Palestinian prisoners. Thousands more remain in Israeli jails, but the move lent Abbas street credibility he has often lacked.

Olmert recently floated the idea of a joint declaration on the contours of a Palestinian state, and Abbas said last week he hopes to reach a full peace deal with Israel within a year.

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