Rice: Slow And Steady On Mideast Peace, And No Guarantees

Sunday, March 25th 2007, 4:15 pm
By: News On 6

RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) _ Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Sunday she is taking it slow and steady as she assembles the elements for what might be a new Mideast peace plan.

``My approach has been, I admit, careful,'' Rice said, because too many past efforts have failed despite what seemed to be clear objectives. ``It's been step by step. I have not been willing to try for the big bang.''

Rice is midway through a shuttle diplomacy mission that evokes previous failed attempts to pull together Israelis and the Palestinians. It is her fourth trip to the region in as many months.

For several months, Rice has tried to put substance to the goal outlined by President Bush four years ago of an eventual independent Palestinian state. On this trip, Rice says she is developing a common set of questions that both sides can use for discussions with her or on their own.

``If you're going to talk about a political horizon, you have to know what's blocking the horizon,'' Rice told reporters traveling with her.

U.S. officials are coy when asked whether Rice has something more ambitious in mind. But Rice made clear that a ``big bang'' _ such as a detailed program for peace that is written and backed by Washington or a Camp David-style summit _ is not coming soon.

The Bush administration may yet try that kind of bold stroke, but time is limited; Bush leaves office in 18 months.

On this trip, the top U.S. diplomat is meeting separately with Palestinian and Israeli diplomats and leaders who have moved farther apart since she began an intensified effort to improve the prospects for a final peace deal.

It is her duty, Rice said ``to try and push forward, to try to move the ball forward, to try to move the Palestinian state forward.''

Rice spoke after a lengthy private meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

The delicate arrangements for her meetings in Ramallah illustrated the changed political landscape since Abbas agreed to govern hand in hand with Hamas, the militant Islamic group that the United States and Israel brand a terrorist organization.

The new government was formed last week under terms that do not satisfy international demands to recognize Israel, renounce violence and agree to abide by past peace deals.

U.S. law forbids direct contact with Hamas members, but Rice also chose not to see other Cabinet members.

She said the U.S. will decide case by case which non-Hamas officials to see, based largely on their records. Israel has taken a harder line, refusing all contact with a Palestinian Cabinet it considers tainted.

Israel has ruled out peace talks as long as an unrepentant Hamas is in charge, but says it will talk to the moderate Abbas on humanitarian and other matters.

Abbas was elected separately, before Hamas swept Palestinian legislative elections last year. He retained power under an awkward two-headed government while international aid dried up and internal Palestinian rivalries turned deadly.

Abbas met earlier with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. But the U.N. chief shunned Hamas officials, a setback to the new Palestinian government's efforts to win international recognition.

While welcoming the government's formation, Ban said ``the atmosphere is not fully ripe'' for talks with Hamas, which has killed more than 250 Israelis in suicide bombings and refuses to recognize the Jewish state.

U.S. and European diplomats have held a stream of contacts with moderate members of the coalition while avoiding Hamas ministers. The international embargo on direct aid to the Palestinian government has not been lifted.

Palestinian officials rejected the notion of diplomatic cherry-picking.

``This government is one team,'' Information Minister Mustafa Barghouti said. ``Whoever meets with one member is meeting with the whole government.''

Rice will meet twice with both Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

``I think it can help all of us to have a destination in mind,'' Rice said after her first session with Abbas. ``I think this time it is best to talk about that political horizon in parallel. But I sincerely hope in the future the parties themselves can talk about the political horizon themselves.''

Olmert's spokeswoman, Miri Eisin, declined comment pending the outcome of a meeting between Rice and the Israeli leader later Sunday.

Abbas aides said he and Rice explored ways to get moderate Arab states involved in Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking. A 2002 Arab peace initiative, which offers recognition of Israel in exchange for a withdrawal from all lands Israel occupied in the 1967 Mideast War, is to be revived at an Arab summit next week.

In one proposal raised Sunday, a committee appointed at the summit would serve as a contact for the quartet of Mideast mediators _ the U.S., the U.N., the European Union and Russia _ as well as Israel and the Palestinians.

Abbas said he and Rice also talked about holding more meetings with Olmert. ``All these meetings are part of the bilateral relations with Israel and the future vision that we are all seeking and working toward,'' Abbas said.

Earlier Sunday in Egypt, Rice raised U.S. criticism of the country's democracy efforts with President Hosni Mubarak.

``I've made my concerns known, as well as my hopes, for continued reform here in Egypt,'' Rice told a news conference after talks in Aswan. ``The process of reform is one that is difficult _ it's going to have its ups and downs.''

The Bush administration has expressed concern that Monday's vote on constitutional changes will be less than fair and democratic.