TEL AVIV, Israel — Secretary of State Rice expressed hope that Israeli and Palestinian Arab leaders will show concrete progress when they meet later this year at an American-hosted international conference on Palestinian statehood.
She also offered support for Israel's designation of the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip as a "hostile entity" after arriving yesterday on a two-day shuttle diplomacy mission. The Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas, protested the Israeli decision.
"My very strong view is that the Israelis and Palestinians are showing good faith and having discussions which are getting broader and deeper," Ms. Rice said at a news conference in Jerusalem after meeting Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni of Israel.
Mr. Abbas and Prime Minister Olmert have been meeting regularly in preparation for the international meeting on Middle East peace that was announced by President Bush in July and will probably take place in November. No specific date has been set as Mr. Bush and Ms. Rice seek commitments from Saudi Arabia and other Arab states to attend the conference.
"We want to advance the cause," Ms. Rice told reporters aboard her plane before arriving in Israel, according to a State Department transcript. "Nobody wants to have a meeting where people simply come and sit and talk and talk and talk."
Israel's security cabinet yesterday declared Gaza a "hostile entity," authorizing the restriction of electricity and fuel to the seaside territory in response to Palestinian rocket attacks. While Ms. Rice said America shares Israel's view on Hamas, she said it "would not abandon the innocent Palestinians in Gaza" and seek to insure that humanitarian aid reaches them.
Mr. Abbas said the Israeli designation "will reinforce the choking blockade that afflicts 1.5 million Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and aggravate their suffering," according to a statement faxed from his office.
Ms. Rice tried to rally support for the Bush-sponsored conference during a round of meetings with Ms. Livni, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, and other Cabinet ministers. She was scheduled to hold a working dinner with Mr. Olmert. Tomorrow she travels 10 miles to the West Bank city of Ramallah for talks with Mr. Abbas before returning to Jerusalem for a final consultation with Mr. Olmert and an afternoon return flight to Washington.
"There is great apprehension about building up expectations that end in huge disappointment," Shlomo Brom, a retired general and participant in past peace talks, said in a September 17 report for the Tel Aviv-based Institute for National Security Studies.
At their September 10 meeting in Jerusalem, Messrs. Olmert and Abbas agreed to set up teams to negotiate the details of statehood issues. Mr. Abbas has indicated, though, that he doesn't want to attend the conference unless he knows it will produce concrete progress. Mr. Olmert favors a joint declaration of intent to establish a Palestinian state.
"Dr. Rice's visit to the region is important," Saeb Erakat, a senior aide to Mr. Abbas, told Voice of Palestine radio. "She will explain the general substance of the proposed conference, who will attend what will be its agenda."
Preparations for the meeting in America have been complicated by the takeover of the Gaza Strip by the Islamic Hamas movement, which portrays Mr. Abbas and his Fatah Party as American-controlled puppets. Hamas is classified as a terrorist organization by America and the European Union.