A Summit That Almost Didn't Happen

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Palestinian Leader Mahmoud Abbas (R) meets with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, February 18, 2007, in Ramallah, West Bank.

After the U.S., Israeli and Palestinian summit aimed at re-starting Middle East peace talks failed, a familiar litany of complaints followed: the Palestinians grumbled that the U.S. was too pro-Israel to act as an honest mediator, while the Israelis expressed frustration because there was nobody among the Palestinians capable of stopping terrorist attacks. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas described the summit aimed at re-starting Middle East peace talks as "a big, big failure." But according to Abbas aides, the meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert almost never took place.

A close Abbas aide tells TIME that the Palestinian leader nearly boycotted Monday's three-way summit after a stormy session with Rice the day before in Ramallah. Witnesses to their meeting say it soured when Rice accused Abbas of "retreating from previous commitments" by agreeing to share power with the militant Islamic group Hamas.

"And what were these commitments?" asked Abbas.

"To dissolve the [previous Hamas] government and call early elections," Rice said frostily, according to witnesses.

"I'd reached a situation where I had to prevent a Palestinian civil war," Abbas explained. Since December more than 90 Palestinians have died in feuding between the two rival militias.

Rice went on to say that Abbas' agreement to share power with Hamas, along with other Palestinian parties and independents, was "unacceptable to the U.S. or Israel." The Palestinian leader then took the offensive, witnesses say, and demanded to know why, after Rice publicly said she would reserve judgment on the new Palestinian government, President Bush telephoned Olmert to tell him that the U.S would never recognize the new cabinet. Rice dodged the subject, say Abbas aides, and talked only about expanding "political horizons." ("If she didn't know about Bush's phone call, she should resign," Abbas told aides later. "She's lost credibility.") Witnesses say that Abbas also blamed Rice for failing to put pressure on Israel to ease roadblocks on Palestinians and unfreeze nearly $500 million in Palestinian funds.

That night, after Rice left the Ramallah meeting, Abbas and his aides debated whether he should boycott the following day's summit. In the end, Abbas decided to go. His aides say Abbas, as angry as he was, did not want to risk an open clash with the U.S. Secretary of State.

Since the summit's failure, tensions have been running high. Palestinian extremists responded to the summit's meltdown by sending a suicide bomber on Tuesday into Tel Aviv, Israel's busiest city. The would-be bomber was caught, but police fear that other explosive-laden martyrs will follow now that the chance of peace between Arabs and Israelis is ebbing. Meanwhile, in Nablus, three American women doing aid work were kidnapped by a Palestinian militant who demanded a job and medical treatment after a shooting injury. The three workers were released unharmed several hours later.

Most Palestinians were frustrated after both the U.S. and Israel refused to recognize the next Palestinian unity government, which will be dominated by Hamas. U.S. and Israel said they will reject the government and refuse to lift a crippling 11-month embargo on the Palestinians, unless Hamas accepts the existence of Israel, renounces violent resistance and recognizes all peace accords with the Jewish state. So far, Hamas has budged only slightly: it is observing a cease-fire with Israel and says the new government will "respect" previous Palestinian pacts with Israel.

For now, the most positive outcome of the summit is that Rice persuaded Olmert and Abbas to keep talking. But unless the three try harder next time, the U.S.-sponsored Road Map for Peace will lead in circles, going nowhere.

With reporting by Jamil Hamad/Bethlehem and Aaron J. Klein/Jerusalem