Rice praises West Bank security efforts
But during visit, says pact deadline unlikely to be met
JENIN, West Bank - Visiting this former militant stronghold, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice yesterday highlighted the Palestinian president's law-and-order campaign, one of the few tangible successes in slow-moving US-backed peace efforts.
After acknowledging that a year-end deadline for an Israeli-Palestinian agreement will not be met, Rice toured Jenin in advance of today's meeting in Egypt of international peacemakers, who hope to consolidate the modest progress and keep talks alive amid political transitions in the United States and Israel.
"Even under difficult circumstances . . . this is a place of hope, this is a place of inspiration, and ultimately a place from where the Palestinian state will spring up," said Rice, who held up the West Bank tour as a model for Palestinian self-governance.
Six years ago, Jenin endured some of the bloodiest Israeli-Palestinian fighting. Rice, the first US secretary of state to visit, praised the town's return to relative calm since President Mahmoud Abbas's forces deployed there in the spring.
"That it could be reborn this way is in many ways an affirmation that nothing is impossible," she told reporters at a news conference with the Palestinian prime minister, Salaam Fayyad.
Abbas's security forces have tried to assert control in more areas of the West Bank over the past year, going after criminals, vigilantes, and Hamas militants, whose faction seized control of the Gaza Strip last year from Abbas's Fatah movement.
Rice will meet today with representatives of the quartet of Middle East peace mediators - the United States, the European Union, the United Nations, and Russia.
In a separate development yesterday, a senior Hamas official in Syria said his group would boycott reconciliation talks with Fatah that had been scheduled for tomorrow in Cairo. The Egyptian government said the session would be indefinitely postponed.
Hamas and Fatah were expected to discuss forming a joint government, rebuilding security forces, and setting a date for presidential and legislative elections.
But deputy Hamas leader Moussa Abu Marzouk said Fatah had reneged on a pledge to release hundreds of Hamas prisoners it holds ahead of the dialogue, prompting the boycott. Fatah maintains that it has no political prisoners and holds only "detainees for breaking the law."
Rice and Fayyad said the state-building elements under way in Jenin could not be separated from political negotiations that focus on the borders of a Palestinian state, control of Jerusalem and its holy sites, as well as the fate of Palestinian refugees.
Jenin residents had mixed feelings about Rice's visit. Some said they are grateful for safer streets but believe an agreement with Israel on Palestinian statehood is a long way off.
"You don't see stolen cars, you don't see people breaking the law in public," said Mohammed Hamdan, a 48-year-old barber. "But we are looking for peace, and they have been negotiating for a long time without any real progress."