Main news focus here — will Palestinians resume talks with Israel

The main focus in U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice’s visit to the Muqata’a Presidential Compound in Ramallah this afternoon was whether or not the Palestinians had agreed to resume post-Annapolis “core issue” and “final status” talks with Israel that have been disrupted since Israel’s ferocious assault on Gaza over the past week.

Rice was unusually accomodating to the Palestinians today. Probably her American delegation would call it a “hand-holding” visit to Ramallah. She did not stamp her feet, or insist.

“We look forward to the resumption of negotiations as soon as possible”, she said. “We understand fully the difficulty of the current moment…but we must keep our eye on what’s important — agreement on a Palestinian state by the end of the year”.

She reiterated, and reiterated. “We are very concerned about the recent violence”. “We reiterated our concern about the innocent victims”, and “we reiterated our concerns about the humanitarian situation.”

She said Israel must also be aware of the need to prevent a humanitarian crisis in Gaza. “We hope there will be a return of humanitarian convoys in Gaza, because we don’t want innocent people to suffer”.

“The rocket attacks need to stop, where innocent Israelis are also at risk. There needs to be an end to violence so people in both societies can lead a more normal life”.

She stressed that while Israel’s right to defend itself is understood, Israel “needs to be very cognizent of the effects of its operations on innocent people” — and she said that it is especially important that Israel “remembers that there are innocent people who have the bad fortune to live under Hamas control”.

Rice flew overnight to Brussels. She arrived from meetings in Egypt to Israel’s Ben Gurion airport by 12:20, and apparently went directly to Ramallah. Most of her meetings with the Israelis will be tomorrow. She apparently did see Israeli Prime Minister Olmert this evening, but a meeting that had been scheduled with Livni was postponed until tomorrow.

At a joint Rice-Abbas press conference in Ramallah after their meeting, nobody asked about the Vanity Fair article, which was highlighted yesterday on Angry Arab’s blog — though a colleague from Japan’s NHK television said Rice was asked about it at a press conference in Cairo this morning (but did not know what she answered).

The first (approved — from the Muqata’a press people) question was from an Palestinian reporter who asked: “Can you tell us where negotiations stand now, because nobody sees any results”? Rice said: “We’ve been very active the last several days”. She then said that the problems can be blamed on Hamas “starting with the illegal coup”. Even after the Vanity Fair article, it was Rice — and not Mahmoud Abbas — who was speaking about the “illegal coup”. Abbas said nothing.

Agence France Press reported that “Rice’s visit coincided with the publication of a Vanity Fair [magazine] article claiming that she and Bush covertly worked to oust Hamas after it won 2006 parliamentary elections, breaking the decades-long hold on power of Abbas’s Fatah party. Citing confidential documents, the magazine said the United States sought to arm a force led by Fatah loyalists to oust Hamas militants from power, but that the plan backfired. ‘Instead of driving its enemies out of power, the US-backed Fatah fighters inadvertently provoked Hamas to seize total control of Gaza’, it said”. This AFP story is published here.

Several of the minor characters in the Vanity Fair story here were in Rice’s entourage at the Muqata’a in Ramallah today – Elliot Abrams, along with David Welch, as well as Lt. General Dayton (in a suit) and Lt. Gen Fraser (in an Air Force uniform)…

This amazing Vanity Fair article said that the magazine “has obtained confidential documents, since corroborated by sources in the U.S. and Palestine, which lay bare a covert initiative, approved by Bush and implemented by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Deputy National Security Adviser Elliott Abrams, to provoke a Palestinian civil war. The plan was for forces led by [Muhammad] Dahlan, and armed with new weapons supplied at America’s behest, to give Fatah the muscle it needed to remove the democratically elected Hamas-led government from power. (The State Department declined to comment.) … Instead of driving its enemies out of power, the U.S.-backed Fatah fighters inadvertently provoked Hamas to seize total control of Gaza. Some sources call the scheme ‘Iran-contra 2.0’, recalling that Abrams was convicted (and later pardoned) for withholding information from Congress during the original Iran-contra scandal under President Reagan”…

The Vanity Fair article also reports that “Some analysts argued that Hamas had a substantial moderate wing that could be strengthened if America coaxed it into the peace process. Notable Israelis—such as Ephraim Halevy, the former head of the Mossad intelligence agency—shared this view. But if America paused to consider giving Hamas the benefit of the doubt, the moment was “milliseconds long,” says a senior State Department official. ‘The administration spoke with one voice: “We have to squeeze these guys”. With Hamas’s election victory, the freedom agenda was dead’.”

And, there’s more. The Vanity Fair article says: “At the end of 2006, Dayton promised an immediate package worth $86.4 million—money that, according to a U.S. document published by Reuters on January 5, 2007, would be used to ‘dismantle the infrastructure of terrorism and establish law and order in the West Bank and Gaza’. U.S. officials even told reporters the money would be transferred ‘in the coming days’. The cash never arrived. ‘Nothing was disbursed’, Dahlan says. ‘It was approved and it was in the news. But we received not a single penny’. Any notion that the money could be transferred quickly and easily had died on Capitol Hill, where the payment was blocked by the House Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia. Its members feared that military aid to the Palestinians might end up being turned against Israel. Dahlan did not hesitate to voice his exasperation. ‘I spoke to Condoleezza Rice on several occasions’, he says. ‘I spoke to Dayton, to the consul general, to everyone in the administration I knew. They said, “You have a convincing argument”. We were sitting in Abbas’s office in Ramallah, and I explained the whole thing to Condi. And she said, “Yes, we have to make an effort to do this. There’s no other way”.’? At some of these meetings, Dahlan says, Assistant Secretary Welch and Deputy National-Security Adviser Abrams were also present”…

Just as they were present in Ramallah today.

Abbas, in the press conference, said: “We warned repeatedly that Israel must not insist on its security first (only)”, and added there must also be security in Gaza and the West Bank — “Security must be reciprocal for both sides, in the proper social and economic atmosphere. No one, under any pretext, can justify what the Israeli military did (in recent days) when 120 died, including many children and civilians. We need a comprehensive and reciprocal truce in Gaza and the West Bank, so that 2008 is (can be) the year of peace”. He continued: “We want to work on activating the Fourth Geneva Convention. Security is vital for both parties, and it can only be achieved through a political solution, not military power…”

Before all that, Abbas did say: “Our conviction is that a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not through violence or counter-violence, but through negotiations with agreed terms of reference and the support of the international community. Peace and negotiations are our strategic option, and all the reference documents say that, in particular the Arab initiative” …

A Reuters correspondent in the travelling State Department press corps tried to press Abbas on what it would take to resume talks with Israel. The answer: “These talks are not a luxury, they are something very important”.

Meanwhile, on the humanitarian concerns that Rice keeps going on about — there must be a reason for that.

On Sunday, a very bad day in Gaza, froman email sent to inform journalists and editors, we learn that “The Gaza Strip Coordination and Liaison Administration today (Sunday), 2.3.08, coordinated the delivery – via the Sufa Crossing – into the Gaza Strip of 62 trucks, including three carrying medical supplies (bandages, water pumps, tourniquets, etc.), seven with World Food Program cooking oil, seven of sugar, nine of milk products, eight of fruit, two of water purification supplies and four of meat and fish products”. This list only explains what was in 40 of the 62 trucks mentioned. It is interesting to see that water pumps are specifically listed — they were previously banned along with all other spare parts — and that they are listed as being grouped among the medical supplies, which have been permissible … From that, we can assume that the situation regarding water pumps has reached the critical stage.

By the end of the day today, the day Condoleeza Rice arrives (Tuesday), the IDF spokesman announces that: “Approximately 160 trucks of humanitarian aid and supplies were transferred into the Gaza Strip today via the Kerem Shalom, Karni and Sufa Crossings. The assistance was organized with the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories. The following is a list of the supplies.

Sufa Crossing:
– 12 trucks of medication and medical supplies (including one UNRWA truck)
– 9 trucks of meat, fish and frozen vegetables
– 8 trucks of fruit
– 7 trucks of flower[sic – I think this should be flour] , oil and sugar
– 5 trucks of dairy products
– 18 trucks of flower[sic – flour?], oil and humus donated by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)

Kerem Shalom Crossing:
– 8 trucks of sugar
– 2 trucks of rice
– 4 trucks of oil
– 4 trucks of rice and oil
– 4 trucks of rice and sugar

Karni Crossing:
– 80 trucks of grains

Things must have been getting really bad…

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