Rice Seeks New Focus on Middle East Peace

The Bush administration has been promising to get more actively involved in Middle East peacemaking in its final years. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will try to make her mark in that area with an international conference this fall.

Though she hasn't sent out invitations yet — and the agenda remains uncertain — Rice told reporters at the United Nations Sunday night that she thinks there is some momentum building to get the Israelis and Palestinians talking about the core issues that separate them. She acknowledged that many are skeptical that this meeting will be as substantial as she's promising.

"I'm not surprised that people wonder if we're going to succeed," she said. "If this conflict had been easy to solve, it would have been solved long ago."

Rice said she would be inviting Arab states. U.S. officials confirmed that Syria will be invited, despite current tensions with the leadership in Damascus over Iraq and Lebanon.

Rice said she will expect something from regional players.

"We hope that those who come are really committed to helping the Israelis and Palestinians find a way through," she said. "That means renouncing violence. Working for a peaceful solution. Coming to this meeting also brings with it certain responsibilities."

Getting Arab states like Saudi Arabia to come to the conference will be key, according to Martin Indyk, director of the Saban Center for Middle East studies at the Brookings Institution.

"Even though they may have doubts about the seriousness of this administration or how much juice it has left, they have their own interest in seeing this move forward," Indyk said. "I still think it is possible even for an enfeebled administration to make something happen."

But he said Rice has a lot of leg work to do first, just to get countries to attend the conference and to move any closer to a two-state solution.

"This is going to be a test of her own diplomatic skills," Indyk said. "She has a disdain for process, but in this case she is going to have to get involved in a peace process."

Rice made a quick trip to the region last week, but analysts in Washington don't see the sort of diplomacy that usually goes along with serious Middle East peace effort.

Some question Rice's hands-off style, which involves letting the Israelis and Palestinians decide how best to proceed.

Aaron David Miller of the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars said the secretary will have to do more than she has so far to bridge the differences.

"I worked for six secretaries of state," Miller said. "None of them who tried to do serious diplomacy could avoid that model. It required enormous personal investment — support of a committed president and a lot of work by the secretary and aides and envoys who were empowered and creative to work with both sides."

Rice seems to be serious, Miller said, but will have to do some heavy diplomatic lifting in the weeks ahead.

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