US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice touched down in Israel on Tuesday for a brief round of peace talks that is not expected to bear any fruit against the backdrop of heavy weekend fighting in and around the Gaza Strip.
Speaking to reporters in Cairo before hopping over to Israel, Rice said the Bush Administration remains hopeful a final status Israeli-Palestinian peace deal can be reached by the end of the year, and blamed the current Gaza flare-up on Hamas.
Hamas, said Rice, clearly does not want peace, and is determined to sow instability in an effort to disrupt and ruin efforts to reach an agreement.
The secretary said Israel has a right to defend itself against such aggression, but must also remember that its actions could have an effect on its ability to maintain a viable peace dialogue with the rest of the Palestinians.
US-backed Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas at the weekend froze contacts with Israel over its military response to escalating Arab rocket attacks on communities across southwestern Israel.
Israel launched a bruising ground incursion into the northern Gaza Strip on Friday as Palestinian forces based there launched more than 100 rockets and foreign-supplied missiles at Israeli civilian populations. But the operation, dubbed "Hot Winter," was abruptly and prematurely halted on Monday morning, a reaction to Rice's impending arrival, according to Israeli government sources.
Hamas followed up by declaring victory over the withdrawing Israeli forces, noting that the latter had failed to achieve their stated goal - the cessation of Arab rocket fire on southern Israel. At least half-a-dozen rocket slammed into southern Israel communities on Tuesday, one destroying the home of an elderly couple in the battered town of Sderot.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was expected to tell Rice when the two met later in the day that Israel will not hesitate to reenter Gaza in force if the terrorists continue to bombard the Jewish state.
However, Mr. Olmert said he is also determined to push ahead with peace negotiations with the Abbas-led Palestinian Authority, negotiations that will ultimately lead to the surrender of Judea and Samaria to the Palestinians, notwithstanding what happened after Israel handed over the Gaza Strip.