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Rice, Palestinian leader to talk

Israeli overture shifts atmosphere

RAMALLAH, West Bank -- Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice put Washington's heft behind new Mideast peace overtures yesterday, scheduling an unexpected meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas this week.

The meeting -- the second between Rice and Abbas in two months -- was announced a day after Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of Israel called on the Palestinians to return to peace talks, saying his country would be willing to leave most of the West Bank in exchange for a "real peace."

Israel and the Palestinians also agreed Saturday on a cease-fire to end five months of fighting in the Gaza Strip, and Rice's visit was seen as a further push to use the momentum to start new peace talks.

Rice, who is accompanying President Bush on a trip to neighboring Jordan, will meet Abbas tomorrow in the West Bank town of Jericho, said Saeb Erekat, a top Abbas aide. Sean McCormack, a State Department spokesman, raised the possibility that she would also meet with an Israeli official.

The United States was the main engine behind the phased "road map" peace plan, which calls for the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel. The plan foundered shortly after it was presented in 2003, with both sides failing to live up to their initial obligations.

Subsequent efforts to get the sides talking again suffered another blow in January, when Hamas militants won Palestinian parliamentary elections. Israel and the West boycotted the new government, imposing crippling economic sanctions on the Palestinian Authority to try to force the Islamic group to moderate its violently anti-Israel views.

In his speech Monday, Olmert said Israel would release frozen funds to the Palestinian Authority, free Palestinian prisoners, and ease checkpoints if Palestinians choose the path of peace.

Abbas said yesterday that Olmert's speech was a positive step toward peacemaking.

If Olmert's "intentions are good, then we can build on this in order to put forward a plan for future negotiations on all issues related to the Palestinian cause," Abbas said during a visit to Jordan.

The cease-fire remains fragile, with militants still firing rockets at Israel since the truce took effect. Militants launched two more rockets at Israel last night, Palestinian witnesses said. There were no reports of injuries.

Olmert said he was "a bit frustrated" the rocket fire had not stopped.

"I hope the Palestinians will meet their commitment to the cease-fire just as we are," he said, adding that Israel plans to continue to show restraint.

But Defense Minister Amir Peretz warned there was a limit to Israel's patience.

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