US pushes Israel, Palestinians to talk
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will push Israelis and Palestinians on Wednesday to return to peace talks and stop violence in the Hamas-run Gaza Strip.
On the final leg of a two-day trip, Rice will follow up meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas by urging their top negotiators and Israel's defence chief to get negotiations launched in Annapolis last November back on track.
"The key is to make certain that the peace process continues," Rice said on Tuesday.
Abbas gave Rice no public commitment on Tuesday that he would return to the talks, which he suspended last Sunday in protest at an Israeli operation in Gaza that has killed more than 120 Palestinians.
"I call on the Israeli government to halt its aggression," Abbas said at a news conference with Rice.
US officials said they understood it was not politically feasible for Abbas to make an announcement during Rice's visit and there needed to be a calmer situation on the ground and greater assurances from the Israelis.
But they expected Abbas to resume negotiations soon.
Israeli ground forces and Hamas militants clashed inside the Gaza Strip on Tuesday, a day after Israel said it was ending its five-day incursion to end Hamas' cross-border rocket attacks.
Palestinians have complained at the slow pace of talks, accusing the Israelis of failing to carry out promises to ease checkpoints and other security restrictions in the West Bank and of not curbing new Jewish settlement activity.
Palestinian negotiators Ahmed Qurei and Saeb Erekat are due to meet Rice early on Wednesday and are expected to push her to put more pressure on Israel, a close US ally.
U.S. officials said Rice would tell Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak that, while she respected Israel's right to defend itself, Palestinians needed to see improvements on the ground if they were to stay committed to the peace process.
She would also tell him the Israelis must try harder to avoid the deaths of innocent people in Gaza, where many of those killed during Israeli attacks have been civilians, they said.
Rice will also meet Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who has been leading talks for the Israelis, before leaving for Brussels for a meeting of NATO foreign ministers.
Despite the misgivings of many Middle East experts, both Rice and President George W Bush are optimistic they will get a deal before the end of Bush's term in January 2009.
"People have been trying to do this for a long time and it has not happened but ... there is a great resoluteness on behalf of the president and myself," Rice said in Ramallah.