Palestinian leader rebuffs Rice on peace talks

.RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) – The U.S.-backed Palestinian president rebuffed the Bush administration’s request Tuesday to quickly end a walkout of peace talks with Israel, saying Israeli military bombardment of civilians in the Gaza Strip is unacceptable under any circumstance.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said negotiations are the only solution, and defended Israel’s right to seek out militants who use the tiny Hamas-held territory as a launching pad for increasing numbers of rockets targeting civilians in southern Israel.

“I understand the difficulties of the current moment,” Rice said following meetings with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. “We all must keep an eye on what is important.”

She won no public promise that Palestinians would end their boycott soon. U.S. officials say they understand his political predicament and predict talks will resume after a brief lull. Abbas was not expected to relent before Rice leaves the Middle East on Wednesday.

“I call on the Israeli government to halt its aggression so the necessary environment can be created to make negotiations succeed, for us and for them, to reach the shores of peace in 2008,” Abbas said. He was referring to the goal – stated at a U.S.-sponsored Mideast peace conference in November – of reaching an Israeli-Palestinian peace treaty by the end of the year.