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Friday, February 2, 2007

Rice to Seek Support for Mideast Effort

Rice to Seek Support for Mideast Effort
Endorsement of Quartet to Be Urged During Meeting in Washington

By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 2, 2007; A11

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will launch a new effort to forge a Palestinian state by seeking an endorsement today from a rare Washington meeting of a high-level group that monitors Middle East peace.

The Quartet, made up of the United States, the European Union, Russia> and the United Nations, has played a largely backstage role in the long-stalled peace process. But Germany, which currently holds the rotating presidency of the E.U., has pressed to revive the role of the international group -- and U.S. officials decided that an endorsement would help bolster Rice's planned return to the region this month to host a meeting between Israeli and Palestinian leaders.

European officials say that Rice's decision to hold the meeting in Washington signals the administration's determination to make progress with just two years left in President Bush's term. "This sends a clear message that the United States is reengaged," one European official said yesterday.

Rice maintains that the prospects for peace have suddenly turned brighter, even though Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has dwindling support among Israelis and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has struggled against the Hamas-led legislature. In a series of recent trips to the region, Rice has tried to unite what she calls "mainstream" Arabs against extremist forces that she says include Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah. She suggests that the strategic interests of Israel and its neighbors have begun to overlap, making it easier to win Arab support for and interest in a peace deal.

Accepting an approach long urged by Europeans and Palestinians, Rice will push Olmert and Abbas to discuss the contours of a final peace deal, even though they have made little progress in implementing the initial steps of a peace plan promoted by the administration for the past four years.

Previously, the administration argued that such negotiations would be premature until the Palestinians met basic security requirements and Israel ended its settlement expansion. Now, Rice suggests that sketching a "political horizon" will boost the confidence of the two sides to take those initial steps -- and to ultimately give Abbas the leverage to defeat Hamas.

But turmoil in the Palestinian territories has increased in recent days. A tentative cease-fire collapsed yesterday as Hamas and forces loyal to Abbas's Fatah party engaged in an intense gunfight in the Gaza Strip that killed six people and wounded at least 50. The administration is pressing a $100 million plan to bolster and train Abbas's security forces.

Behind the scenes, there are tensions in the Quartet group over the administration's determination to maintain an economic embargo on the Palestinian government led by Hamas, which the State Department considers a terrorist organization. The Russians, in particular, have pressed for an end to the embargo. The Europeans last year won approval for a temporary -- now largely permanent -- aid program that directly benefits the Palestinian people, bypassing Hamas institutions. The aid ban, however, has allowed Iran to gain a greater role in Palestinian affairs as it provides huge amounts of smuggled cash to Hamas.

A senior administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the group's communique was still being drafted, said that "we need to review the mechanisms in place" for aiding the Palestinians. He said the administration views the aid ban on Hamas to be "a relative success," but he acknowledged that others might argue that it has not succeeded because Hamas still refuses to recognize Israel.

He noted that overall aid to the Palestinians has increased in the past year, and that "apocalyptical visions" of Palestinian suffering because of the aid ban have not materialized.

Over the past six years, the administration has promoted several peace initiatives, only to back off in the face of setbacks. One senior European official who recently met with Rice said he is impressed by her apparent determination to achieve a breakthrough. Asked why he believes this time is different, he smiled and said: "One must always be an optimist."

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