Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice assured Palestinian leaders Thursday that a US-sponsored Mideast peace conference this fall is aimed at getting them closer to establishing an independent state and that Israel is ready now to discuss the main issues that need to be resolved.Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, during a meeting with Rice, also signalled willingness to work on a declaration of principles as a step towards a full peace deal. Up to now the Palestinians have insisted on talks towards a peace treaty with no interim steps.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert floated the idea of a declaration of principles last week, but Abbas had not commented on it until Thursday.
Rice met with Abbas at his headquarters in the West Bank city of Ramallah and signed an agreement granting the Palestinians $80 million for reform of their security services, a crucial element in the Fateh-Hamas power struggle.
Abbasâ€™ Fateh forces fell surprisingly quickly before a Hamas onslaught in Gaza last month. Restructuring and training Fateh-linked forces in the West Bank are seen as crucial to keep Hamas at bay there.
Rice said she is likely be back in the region before the international peace conference planned for the autumn.
Hamas denounced the latest show of US support for its rival Abbas. Abbas fired the Hamas-led government after the IslamicÂ groupâ€™s violent takeover of Gaza in June and he installed a Cabinet of moderates.
â€œRice did not come to the region to establish a Palestinian state, as she and her master Bush claimed, but instead she came to support one Palestinian party against another, and to support the Zionist occupation,â€ said Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri.
In a joint news conference with Abbas, Rice said President George W. Bush wants to see progress towards Palestinian statehood at the upcoming conference.
Rice said regional leaders, including those in Saudi Arabia, told her during her current Mideast swing that the conference must deal with issues of substance.
â€œPrime Minister Olmert told me last night that he, too, shared that view, that this was a meeting that ought to be and needs to be substantive and meaningful and that will, in fact, help get to a two-state solution,â€ Rice said.
â€œThe president of the United States has no desire to call people together for a photo opportunity. This is to call people together so that we can really advance Palestinian statehood,â€ she said.
Olmertâ€™s office said in a statement Thursday that the Israeli leader â€œshares the same approach, that the international meeting will be serious and meaningful, and that he welcomes the participation of leaders of Arab countries in the meetingâ€.
Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who met Rice Wednesday, said the main negotiations must be directly between Israel and the Palestinians, and Israel hopes for agreement on any issue that can push the process forward.
Interviewed by Israel TV on Thursday, she hoped Arab nations that do not have relations with Israel would attend the conference in the fall, because â€œthe Arab world can support Israel when Israel is making the right steps regarding the Palestiniansâ€.
Abbas, meanwhile, said he is ready to negotiate a declaration of principles as an interim step. Such a declaration, as envisioned by Israel, would outline the contours of a future Palestinian state, without immediately tackling the most explosive issues, such as final borders and the fate of Palestinian refugees.
â€œWhat is important is that we arrive at a result and that we know what that result is, what is the roof that we need to reach and what are the stages of implementation that we can agree on,â€ Abbas said.
Abbasâ€™ aide Yasser Abed Rabbo said the Palestinians remain sceptical, despite the outpouring of international goodwill towards their new government.
â€œI canâ€™t be optimistic until I see the Israelis accepting the Arab Peace Initiative and the international community committed to observing the implementation of a peace treaty, and a timetable for implementing this treaty,â€ he said.
Earlier Thursday, Rice met with the entire Cabinet of Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, a gesture of support for the team of moderates that replaced the Hamas government.Â Rice was introduced to the ministers, then addressed them in the Cabinet room.
Hamas considers the West Bank-based Fayyad government, installed after the Gaza takeover, to be illegitimate.
The US and Israel hope to isolate the Hamas government in the Gaza Strip while lavishing money, and political legitimacy on Abbas and his new government.
Israel has released frozen tax money as a sign of goodwill, and in a symbolic gesture freed hundreds of Palestinian prisoners. Thousands more remain in Israeli jails, but the move lent Abbas street credibility he has often lacked.