LUXOR, Egypt - Seeking a fresh start for stalled Mideast peace efforts, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice won promises yesterday from the leaders of Israel and the Palestinian Authority to meet with her in February for their first discussion of a final peace deal in six years.
Rice said Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas had agreed to meet for "informal, broad discussions" about the final moves toward a Palestinian state.
"The parties haven't talked about these [final-stage] issues for a long time," Rice said after meeting here with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. "It seems wise to begin this . . . to really just sit and talk about the issues."
U.S. officials believe that by shifting the focus to what the final outcome of peace negotiations would look like, they can galvanize a process that has been bogged down for four years in difficult preliminary issues.
The initiative from Rice, who spent the last three days meeting with Israeli and Palestinian officials, comes at a time of widespread gloom about the prospects for peace. The Bush administration, besieged with problems elsewhere and running out of time, is desperate to show progress.
U.S. officials remained vague about the goals of the three-way meeting, but a senior official traveling with Rice said that it would explore "where do we want to go" and develop "some joint understanding of what's in it for each side."
Israeli officials said that they had agreed to the talks but emphasized that Olmert would continue to carry on bilateral talks dealing with the nuts-and-bolts issues of the relationship - such as movement and access, funds, prisoners and violence.
Those often-stalled talks have been complicated by conflicts between Abbas' Fatah movement and the Islamic group Hamas, which controls the Palestinian government.
"There is no doubt that we must, at the same time, continue the bilateral meetings between us and them," Olmert said after his morning session with Rice.
Palestinian officials reacted cautiously.
Ahmed Abdel-Rahman, a political adviser to Abbas, said the Palestinian leader was ready "in principle" to attend the three-way summit but was waiting for a date and a venue to be agreed.
"We welcome American participation in any Palestinian-Israeli meeting," Abdel-Rahman said.
Since 2003, U.S. officials have said they were following the blueprint laid out in the road map peace plan, backed by the United States, Russia, the European Union, and the United Nations. The plan sets out a step-by-step progression of moves, such as reining in violence by Palestinian extremists and halting Israeli settlement construction, that are intended to lead the two sides toward peace.
While the road map says the parties should concentrate on the next step before them, slowly building toward the major issues dividing Israelis and Palestinians, the new approach would have them simultaneously concentrating on early issues and later ones.
Some outside experts have urged the Bush administration to begin talking about these later issues. They were last discussed in 2000, when President Bill Clinton attempted to work out the issues between the two sides.
The Israeli government published plans yesterday to build more homes in its largest West Bank settlement, defying U.S. opposition to such construction just as Secretary of State Condoleezza
Rice was in the region on a peace-seeking mission.
In public statements, Rice repeatedly endorsed the 2003 road map peace plan, which requires Israel to halt all settlement- building and specifically bans construction for "natural growth" or growing families among the settlers.
Israeli officials said that was the reason for continued building in Maaleh Adumim, a settlement of 30,000 two miles east of Jerusalem. Yesterday, the Housing Ministry published ads in Israeli newspapers asking developers to bid on the construction of 44 houses in the settlement.
Olmert spokeswoman Miri Eisin said the government was "committed to the continuing growth, natural growth, of the settlements that are in the perimeter around Jerusalem."
Israel has often declared that even under terms of a final peace
accord, Maaleh Adumim would be included in Israel. Palestinians demand removal of all West Bank Jewish settlements.
- Associated Press