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Abbas agrees to resume talks

JERUSALEM — JERUSALEM -- With help from an Egyptian cease-fire proposal for the Gaza Strip, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice persuaded the U.S.-backed Palestinian leadership yesterday to resume peace talks with Israel.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas had halted the negotiations Sunday over an Israeli incursion into Gaza and had rebuffed Rice's entreaties Tuesday to change his mind. But after speaking to Abbas by telephone yesterday, Rice announced here that the talks are back on track.

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Abbas later confirmed the reversal in a statement from his West Bank headquarters. He said his moderate Palestinian faction remained committed to the "strategic choice" of negotiations as a means for achieving an independent state alongside Israel.

"We have the intention of resuming the peace process," he said.

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Neither Rice nor Abbas said when the talks would restart.

President Bush, who helped launch the peace talks at a November conference in Annapolis, is pushing for agreement by the end of his term on the main issues - borders, the status of Palestinian refugees and conflicting claims to Jerusalem.

But the effort is threatened by violence in Gaza, where the ruling Hamas faction calls for Israel's destruction and opposes the talks.

Israel said its five-day assault on Gaza, which ended Monday, was aimed at stopping rocket fire at its border communities. Palestinian outrage over the death toll in Gaza, which exceeded 100 and included many civilians, prompted Abbas to suspend the talks.

Rice had planned her two-day visit to Egypt, the West Bank and Israel before the incursion, hoping to advance the talks. Instead she struggled to rescue them from collapse.

"Hamas, which holds the people of Gaza hostage in their hands, is now trying to make the path to a Palestinian state hostage to them," Rice said during a news conference in Jerusalem with Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni. "We cannot allow that to happen."

Abbas' spokesman, Nabil abu Rudaineh, said two assurances from Rice swayed the Palestinian leader to drop his condition that a truce take hold in Gaza before talks resume.

Rice said she was sending David Welch, assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, back to Cairo for discussions about Gaza, the topic of her talks with Egyptian officials Tuesday.

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And she promised to dispatch Lt. Gen. William Fraser III to the region next week to assess progress on incremental steps agreed to in Annapolis. Abbas' aides said they hope Fraser will pressure Israel to halt Jewish settlement activity and to ease travel restrictions for Palestinians in the West Bank.

Palestinian officials took Welch's return to Cairo as a sign of U.S. support for Egyptian efforts to bring calm to Gaza.

A cease-fire is part of a proposed Egyptian package that would also include the reopening of the border between Gaza and Egypt, the release of an Israeli soldier seized by Gaza militants in 2006, and tighter security to prevent Hamas from smuggling arms from Egypt through tunnels under the border.

Israel Radio said Rice briefed Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and other Israeli officials on the Egyptian proposal.

But she was vague about it at the news conference and avoided the term "cease-fire," apparently because it might suggest indirect negotiations with Hamas.

Richard Boudreaux writes for the Los Angeles Times.


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