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Rice Says Mideast Peace Negotiations Back on Track


U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice says Israelis and Palestinians have agreed to resume peace talks. The announcement came on a day of intense diplomatic activity and an easing of tensions in the Gaza Strip. VOA's Jim Teeple reports from our Jerusalem bureau.

Secretary Rice ended two days of intense diplomatic activity that saw her visit Egypt, the West Bank and Israel by getting a commitment from Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to resume peace talks with Israel.

The talks were suspended Sunday by Mr. Abbas, after more than 120 Palestinians were killed by Israeli forces in the Gaza Strip, during an operation against Palestinian militants firing rockets at southern Israel.

Wednesday, Mr. Abbas initially said he would not resume the negotiations unless a cease-fire went into effect in Gaza. But at a news conference with Israel's foreign minister, Secretary Rice said she had convinced the Palestinian president to change his mind.

"I have talked with Abu Mazen, with President Abbas, and he obviously would like to see a calm, he has spoken publicly about his desire for a cease fire, but this is not a condition for a resumption of the talks," she said.

A statement issued by President Abbas's office confirmed that Palestinians will be returning to the negotiations, calling the decision a strategic choice.

Rice says even though she is leaving the region for now, U.S. diplomatic activity to end the crisis will continue, saying U.S. Assistant Secretary of State David Welch, will hold talks with Egyptian officials about how to ease tensions in Gaza. She says the best way for that to happen is for Hamas and other Palestinian militants in Gaza to stop firing rockets at southern Israel.

"The rocket attacks against Israel ought to stop," she added. "As I have said, as Israel defends itself, Israel also needs to be very careful about innocent people who get caught in the crossfire, and about the humanitarian conditions in Gaza. So there is a path forward."

Israel's Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Israeli forces will abstain from attacking the Gaza Strip if militants stop firing rockets. Mr. Olmert made his comments at the conclusion of a meeting of his security cabinet, which approved continued targeted strikes against rocket launching activities in Gaza.

Tensions in Gaza have eased considerably. For the first time since the current crisis began, Israel allowed about 25 Palestinians to enter Israel from Gaza for medical treatment. Israel also allowed about 70 truckloads of food and medicine to enter Gaza, including some coming from Egypt. Meanwhile, Palestinian rocket attacks against Israel dramatically dropped on Wednesday as well.

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