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Rice to visit the Mideast next month: Abbas

By Alaa Shahine

CAIRO (Reuters) – The U.S. secretary of state will visit the Middle East next month, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said on Wednesday, adding he would discuss with her the idea of a “back channel” for negotiations with Israel.

Condoleezza Rice last visited the region in late November and held talks with Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. The U.S. administration has since welcomed Abbas’s calls for early Palestinian polls and Rice said it also planned to ask Congress for funds to support his security forces.

Abbas, addressing a news conference after talks with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Cairo, said: “I discussed the upcoming steps with the president, especially that Dr. Rice is coming here on the 13th and 14th (of January).”

He said he had a plan to form a “back channel” of negotiations with the Israelis about final status issues and would float the idea again during Rice’s visit.

“I think that when Rice is here it will be the time to talk about this issue seriously,” he said. U.S. embassy officials were not immediately available to comment on Rice’s visit.

Abbas and Egypt, a key regional mediator, have proposed moving into final status issues and bypass the U.S.-sponsored “road map” for the Middle East, which has failed to achieve progress because of violence and the West’s refusal to work with the governing Hamas group.

He said the parallel channel would involve one or more members of the quartet of Middle East mediators — the United States, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations. “The back channel will not be public but will not be secret.”

Olmert said Israel would study the idea, Abbas said.

Israel has been under U.S. and European pressure to take steps to strengthen the secular Abbas in a power struggle with Hamas, the Islamist militant group which beat the president’s Fatah faction in general elections in January.

Abbas said the Israeli prime minister had promised to release a number of Palestinian prisoners before the Muslim feast of Eid al-Adha, which starts on Saturday.

Olmert suggested on Sunday he would release some prisoners this week, even though Gaza militants have yet to free an Israeli soldier they captured in a cross-border raid in June.

Olmert’s office said on Wednesday he had ordered the military to resume attacks on Palestinian militants who fire rockets from the Gaza Strip.

But under international pressure to keep a fragile one-month calm with the Palestinians alive, and with a meeting planned next week with Mubarak, Israeli analysts did not expect Olmert to order widescale attacks that could weaken Abbas.

Abbas said he was still determined to hold elections despite Hamas’s objections, but that he would leave the door “ajar” for the possibility of reaching an agreement on a national unity government.


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