Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said Wednesday that despite internal disunity among Palestinians they insist on a quickly political settlement with the moderate-led West Bank.
The diplomats said they will not squander what each called a rare opportunity 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 tentatively exploring a renewed peace initiative for months, insists that what many analysts see as a debacle is actually a moment of hope. In a few days of fighting in June, Islamic Hamas militants in Gaza quickly 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. Although Abbas and his U.S. backers insist he remains the titular head of all Palestinians, Hamas holds control of more than 1 million people and one of the two territories that the U.S. envisioned as an eventual Palestinian state.
"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 said the West Bank can "be an example" for cooperation or negotiation with Israel.
"The implementation of any kind of understanding between Israel and the Palestinian government can be in accordance to the places of the territories in which there is an effective government," Livni said.
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 Abbas and his new government.
Israel has released frozen tax money as a sign of good will, and in a symbolic gesture freed hundreds of Palestinian prisoners. Thousands more remain in Israeli jails, but the move lent Abbas street credibility he has often lacked.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud 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.
Rice also met Wednesday with Olmert, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak and President Shimon Peres.
The fast-moving events have all but overtaken the cautious, tentative path toward negotiations that Rice had been pushing with limited success this year. Her visits this spring accomplished little other than pledges of further meetings between Olmert and Abbas, while Abbas struggled to end the increasingly violent internal Palestinian turmoil.
Rice planned to see Abbas and his new prime minister, Salam Fayyad, in the West Bank city of Ramallah on Thursday. The key prime minister's post had been held by a Hamas leader since shortly after the Islamist group unexpectedly won Palestinian legislative elections in January, 2006.
There is broad skepticism in Israel about the near-term chances for peace, and among many Palestinians about the depth of U.S. commitment to shepherd a deal. U.S. officials, although more confident of their prospects than at any time in years, caution that a deal is still unlikely before President Bush leaves office less than 18 months from now.
Declaring a "moment of choice" in the Middle East, Bush last month said he would call together Israel, the Palestinians and others in the region for an international peace conference. Although the United States wants Arab states such as Saudi Arabia to attend, giving a boost to both Israel and the new Palestinian leadership, Rice said she did not issue invitations during meetings in Egypt and Saudi Arabia this week.
Earlier Wednesday, Saudi Arabia signaled it may attend the meeting. Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal said the kingdom, which does not have diplomatic relations or a peace deal with Israel, wants assurances that the meeting would "deal with issues of real substance, not form."
"Should we then get an invitation to attend, we will look very closely and very hard at attending," Saud said during a press conference with Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates.
The U.S. Cabinet secretaries were in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia for the second day of meetings with Arab allies. The United States wants stronger Arab endorsements of the fragile Iraq government, and the joint visit also included talks on proposed new U.S. arms sales to Persian Gulf nations worth at least $20 billion.
The proposed sales were announced in tandem with new 10-year military aid packages for Israel and Egypt, the first Arab state to make peace with Israel.
U. S. officials stressed that the sales will not cut into Israel's decades-old military advantage over its neighbors.