Rice urges Arab states to recommit to Saudi plan
By News Agencies
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, heading to the Middle East on her third trip since the start of the year, on Friday urged the Arab states to recommit to a 2002 Saudi peace initiative, and said that there should be room for negotiation.
The plan should be revived "in a way that leaves open the possibility for active diplomacy based on it, not just putting it in the middle of the table and leaving it at that."
The secretary of state denied reports from some Arab diplomats, however, that she had asked for changes in the original proposal.
She also called on the Arab states to negotiate with Israel, giving new impetus to the stalled Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.
"You need the energy and the help of moving forward on the Arab-Israeli side not at the end of the process but earlier," Rice told reporters.
Her trip to Israel, Jordan, the Palestinian Authority and Egypt comes ahead of an Arab League summit at the end of March. The meeting in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, is expected to revive the proposal for blanket
peace with Israel in return for a complete withdrawal from terrotories captured in the 1967 Six-Day War.
Despite her plans to meet Israeli and Palestinian leaders, Rice said that the issue of the Saudi peace plan could center stage.
"It's almost at this point more important, given the upcoming Riyadh summit, to have the discussion with the Arabs about relaunching the Arab initiative," she said.
Rice stops first in Aswan, Egypt, for talks with the foreign ministers of the so-called Arab quartet - Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates - and with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
She also is expected to meet Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas and Jordan's King Abdullah.
Rice also criticized Hamas for not releasing captured Israel Defense Forces soldier Cpl. Gilad Shalit, held since June 2006, saying it would have helped the new Hamas-Fatah government. The Palestinians had hoped the formation of the government would win international approval.
Freeing Shalit "would have gotten this national unity government off to a better start internationally than it's off to right now," Rice said.
She also said that the U.S. might one day propose its own solutions to the most vexing problems dividing Israel and the Palestinians, such as the borders of an eventual independent Palestinian state.
In the meantime, Rice said, she wants to use meetings like those she will attend in coming days in Jerusalem and the West Bank to draft a common set of questions and concerns on both sides. She gave no timetable for either effort but made clear that the United States would be at the center of them.
"I don't rule out that at some point that might be a useful thing to do," Rice said when asked about presenting a set of U.S. proposals to settle enduring problems that have scuttled past negotiations for peace. Those include borders, the fate of Jerusalem and the rights of Palestinians and their descendants who left when Israel was formed in 1948.
The United States has not publicly placed its own proposed solutions before the Israelis and Palestinians since the closing months of the former President Bill Clinton's administration.
Both sides say U.S. involvement is crucial to any political
accommodations between the two sides.
Rice is trying to invigorate new peace talks despite long odds. She will see Israeli and Palestinian leaders separately on this trip, which comes a week after the Palestinians formed a coalition government that falls short of international demands.
"What I want to do is to establish ... a common approach in parallel between the two parties, to have a mechanism or certain elements that I am using to structure the discussion," Rice told reporters before leaving for her trip.
"I hope that I can get them to see that there is some advantage to having a common language, a common approach, a common mechanism for working through what issues have to be resolved," Rice said.
Rice said she will shuttle between the two sides to develop a common set of concerns, but she said she hopes she can produce a document which might eventually allow for a way for them to structure a conversation between them.
Rice brokered a three-way meeting with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas when she last visited the region last month. She said she did not even ask the two to come together this time, although U.S. officials say that kind of meeting will come again in time.
For now, Rice is repeating a well-tested pattern from past peace negotiations, where the United States is a go-between and provocateur. That is another step toward the kind of central role in Israeli-Arab peacemaking that the Bush administration resisted in its early years.
Part of Rice's goal on this trip is to rally greater Arab support for peace efforts, and the smaller, practical steps that would precede any substantive peace talks. She is seeing leaders and diplomats from Egypt, Jordan, Saudia Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, the so-called
Analysts say Rice wants to make a mark by tackling a conflict that is often seen as intractable before she leaves office.
"She has 18 months to become a consequential secretary of state," said Aaron David Miller, a former adviser on Middle East issues to both Republican and Democratic administrations. "The way to become a consequential secretary of state is to take a problem that normal human beings know is hard and make it better."