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Thursday, November 30, 2006

Rice seeks to jumpstart Arab-Israeli peace process

Rice seeks to jumpstart Arab-Israeli peace process
Thu Nov 30, 2006 4:55 AM ET

By Sue Pleming

AMMAN (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will seek on
Thursday to resuscitate the Palestinian-Israeli peace process after coming
under pressure from moderate Arab nations hoping to expand a ceasefire deal.

Rice was set to meet Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank town
of Jericho and will then hold talks with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in

"There is no question that if we were able to settle the Israeli-Palestinian
issue it would help bring more peace to the Middle East," President Bush after
a meeting in Amman with Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.

"Therefore our government is focused on helping develop the two-state
solution." Rice arrived in Jordan with Bush on Wednesday.

U.S. officials said Washington's goal was to capitalize on a fragile ceasefire
deal between the Palestinians and the Israelis last weekend in Gaza and to
expand that deal to the West Bank.

Arab allies of Washington such as Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia are pushing
hard for the United States to become more involved in trying to resolve the
Arab-Israeli conflict in the hope that this will help the situation in Iraq.

A senior U.S. official, speaking to reporters, said Bush and Jordan's King
Abdullah agreed at a meeting on Wednesday "this was a potential moment of

But many obstacles exist.

Those include the handover of prisoners from both sides and deadlocked
negotiations between Abbas and the governing militant group Hamas to form a
new unity government that would lead to the West lifting restrictions on the
Palestinian Authority.


Hamas has resisted pressure from Western states and Abbas to recognize Israel,
renounce violence and accept past accords with Israel. Abbas's aides say he
believes talks with Hamas are at a dead end, but it is unclear if he plans to
sack the government.

In Amman, Bush emphasized his backing for strong moves by Abbas. "He deserves
support in peeling his government away from those who do not recognize
Israel's right to exist," Bush said.

U.S. officials said Rice's talks with Abbas would focus on efforts to
strengthen his security forces.

Rice is also seeking Olmert's cooperation in bolstering Abbas's presidential
guard and is pressing Israel to ease travel restrictions as she has on
previous visits.

After meeting the Palestinians and the Israelis, Rice is set to go to the Dead
Sea in Jordan to meet ministers from the Gulf Cooperation Council as well as
Egypt and Jordan.

"This offers an excellent forum to discuss a lot of regional issues," said a
senior State Department official.

He said the United States believed there was a "moderate core" of Arab nations
that could help advance the peace process between the Israelis and the

In one early sign of progress in reviving peace talks, Egypt's intelligence
chief met Olmert on Wednesday to discuss a possible exchange of Palestinian
prisoners for an Israeli soldier held by militants in Gaza.

Following those talks, Israel released one of the Hamas government ministers
it detained after militants abducted Corporal Gilad Shalit in June. It was not
immediately clear whether the release could be part of a broader exchange.

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