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Israel And Palestinians To Meet Biweekly

Israeli and Palestinian leaders have agreed to meet every two weeks to discuss day-to-day issues, but also to move toward talks on a final peace settlement, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice announced Tuesday, after shuttling between the two sides for three days.

Rice said the U.S. would set benchmarks for implementing a cease-fire, including the halting of rocket fire from Gaza, and for improving the flow of Palestinian travelers and goods through Israeli crossings.

"It is a complex undertaking and it will take time and effort," she said.

However, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is disappointed that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas joined a unity government with Hamas, and therefore they will not discuss major issues such as Jerusalem, refugees and final borders, reports CBS News correspondent Robert Berger.

Rice said doors had been opened during her visit and she was laying the groundwork for future peace talks. Rice's latest trip to the region, her fourth in as many months, came just ahead of a critical Arab League summit in Saudi Arabia.

In other developments:

  • (AP)
    The convoy of the new Palestinian interior minister came under fire Tuesday as it arrived at the scene of a large sewage spill in the northern Gaza Strip, a Hamas Web site reported. Interior Minister Hani Kawasmeh wasn't hurt, the Web site said. He had just arrived to inspect the scene of the disaster, which killed at least four people and forced thousands of residents to evacuate the village. His car was quickly surrounded by an angry mob, and gunfire broke out, the Web site said.
  • The Iranian threat has Israel beefing up its missile defenses, carrying out another successful test of its Arrow anti-ballistic missile system, reports . The Arrow, a joint project of Israel and the U.S., is a missile that is designed to intercept incoming missiles at high altitudes. Israel is especially concerned about Iran's long-range missiles which could carry nuclear weapons. The Arrow project took on increased urgency a year and a half ago, when the Iranian president threatened to wipe Israel off the map.
  • (AFP/Getty)
    Hundreds of Israeli settlers and their supporters remain holed up in the former West Bank settlement of Homesh, reports . Yedidya Lerner used to live there, and says this is the first step toward taking the settlement back. "The main point is that even if we don't succeed this time, we're going to be here another time, and we're going to be here again and again and again until we succeed in settling again here in Homesh." Palestinian militants are threatening to attack the demonstrators. And the army says if they don't leave voluntarily they will be removed by force.
  • Two Palestinian militants, members of the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade, were killed early Tuesday in a gun battle with Israeli troops in the West Bank city of Nablus.

    To encourage Israel to hammer out a deal with the Palestinians, Rice wants Arab countries to relaunch a broad 2002 land-for-peace offer to Israel, and be willing to negotiate with the Jewish state.

    "All those nations that seek a negotiated solution can help make it possible, and help make it possible sooner," she said.

    A version of the plan is expected to be part of the summit in Riyadh, which opens on March 28.

  • "The Arab states should begin reaching out to Israel, to reassure Israel that its place in the region will be more, not less, secure by an end to the occupation and the establishment of a Palestinian state, to show Israel that they accept its place in the Middle East," she told reporters in Jerusalem before her departure.

    Rice said the agreement to step up the frequency and political content of meetings between Olmert and Abbas was more than she had expected. She said she believes it is possible for an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal to be reached before President Bush leaves office.

    "They achieved something, which is the very regularized meetings between the two of them, in which they will not just talk about their day-to-day issues, but also about a political horizon," Rice said, explaining that the talks could help build confidence to smooth the way for talks on a final peace deal. Still, she said the time was not yet ripe to discuss the specifics of such an accord.

    Rice said she would occasionally join the Israeli-Palestinian meetings.

    Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said that while Israel had tried to limit discussions to humanitarian and security issues, Rice ensured that talks would include a "political horizon," even if not a final status deal.

    Rice said her task had been complicated by the formation of a governing coalition between the militant Islamic Hamas and Abbas' Fatah movement.

    She said cooperation with the new government was hindered by Hamas' refusal to accept three international demands — recognition of Israel, renunciation of violence and acceptance of previous peace deals with Israel.

    In an apparent gesture to Israel, Rice shunned all members of the new Palestinian Cabinet, including non-Hamas moderates.

    Although Olmert has in the past called Abbas a "partner for peace," he said he would limit talks to humanitarian issues and ruled out peace talks following the formation of the new Palestinian government. Softening that stance was a sign of fresh and surprising traction toward peace talks despite the Hamas factor.

    Rice has shuttled between Israeli, Palestinian and Arab leaders this week, trying to rally greater Arab support for eventual peace negotiations, and to persuade Israel to be more flexible in its dealings with Abbas.

    Olmert said Monday he "wouldn't hesitate" to take part in a regional summit and Palestinian officials cautiously endorsed the idea.

    Any such meeting — especially if Saudi and Israeli officials were to publicly meet — would be a huge symbolic breakthrough. Saudis and Israelis are believed to have held private meetings in the past year.

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