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Rice searches for common agenda on Mideast trip

Rice headed to the Mideast amid skepticism about the US commitment to pursuing peace.
Reuters | By HT Correspondent, Washington
UPDATED ON MAR 24, 2007 03:45 PM IST

United States Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said on Friday she hoped to persuade Israelis and Palestinians to agree on a common set of issues to discuss as she headed to the Middle East amid skepticism about the US commitment to pursuing peace.

Speaking to a small group of reporters, Rice also said she hoped Arab states would find a way to follow up on their 2002 peace initiative, which an Arab League summit in Riyadh is expected to reaffirm next week.

Analysts believe circumstances are far from conducive to a revived peace process, given divisions among the Palestinians and the political weakness of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, leaving both sides ill-equipped to negotiate.

Olmert has decided to shun the new Hamas-led Palestinian national unity government because it has not recognized Israel and renounced violence. He plans to limit his dealings to the more moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah.

"My primary goal is to establish a mechanism, a common approach, that I can use with them in parallel so that we are addressing the same issues. That's really the key right now," Rice said before her four-day trip to Egypt, Israel, the West Bank and Jordan.

"What would make this trip a success for me is if I can establish that we have now a common approach to moving forward."

Rice said she hoped they might agree to discuss -- initially via US officials going back and forth between the two sides -- issues like security, Palestinian governance or defining a viable, contiguous Palestinian state.

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 Olmert, Abbas and Jordan's King Abdullah.

Next week's Arab League summit is expected to reaffirm a 2002 plan that offered Israel normal ties with Arab countries in return for full withdrawal from land it occupied in the 1967 Middle East war.

Rice said an Israeli-Palestinian peace process should be accompanied by a wider Arab-Israeli reconciliation.

She said she hoped the Arab peace plan would be relaunched "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."

Despite making her third trip to the region this year, Rice faces doubts about Washington's commitment.

"I think they are serious about putting more effort in," said Jon Alterman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank. "I think they are not serious about putting in the kind of effort and presidential involvement that a final settlement will require."

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