Rice Cautious on Mideast Peace Progress

Secretary of State Rice and Palestinian President Abbas, seated in chairs. i i

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas met Monday in Ramallah. Muhammed Muheisen/Pool/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Muhammed Muheisen/Pool/Getty Images
Secretary of State Rice and Palestinian President Abbas, seated in chairs.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas met Monday in Ramallah.

Muhammed Muheisen/Pool/Getty Images

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is shuttling between the Israelis and Palestinians, trying to finalize preparations for a peace conference she's due to host next month in Annapolis, Md.

Rice is in the West Bank Monday to speak with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Sunday, she spoke with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

Rice is trying to dampen expectations that there will be significant movement toward a much-awaited peace conference during the current trip. Asked on board her flight to Israel Sunday whether she thinks a Palestinian state could emerge before the end of her term, she was circumspect.

"All I can do is give 100 percent until I leave office and see how far we can get," she said.

First, she hopes to win agreement from Israelis and Palestinians on a document that would "point a way forward" toward Palestinian statehood. The next step would be to have Arab states and other international players gather to endorse the joint statement and back the main parties in their peace effort.

To make her mark on Middle East policy, many analysts say, Rice must get Israelis and Palestinians to be fairly specific in spelling out their endgame.

One of the many former U.S. officials who have been writing letters of advice is Zbigniew Brzezinski, who was President Carter's national security advisor. In a recent teleconference, he said the document must set out a clear outline for the most troubling issues — including security, borders and the fate of Palestinian refugees.

One key, according to Brzezinski, is that Palestinians must abandon their demands for the right to return to the lands they occupied before the creation of Israel.

"That is a painful pill for Palestinians to swallow and yet we recognize it is an absolute necessity," Brzezinski said.

Another, he said, is "a genuine sharing of Jerusalem." He said that is "difficult for Israelis" to accept, but added: "Yet we know there will be no peace if there is no sharing."

Asked whether she's aiming for that sort of specificity, Rice would only say that she thinks it is important that the Israelis and Palestinians address the core issues in some fashion and that the document is substantive.

Reaching such compromises will be challenging, because Israel's Olmert and the Palestinian Authority's Abbas are so weak.

Rice sounded out Olmert and other politicians in his coalition in separate meetings Sunday. She says that right now, both sides are just trying to build up confidence and it might not be helpful for the U.S. to step in with its own ideas.

"If we do get to actual negotiations — rather than just negotiations on a joint document — there is going to have to be a lot of confidence between the parties," Rice said. "The U.S. can't substitute for that confidence between them."

Questions arose over reports that Israel would renew a road plan that Palestinians view as a land grab in the West Bank. Rice said the Israelis have reassured her the project is not imminent. Still, as she spoke to reporters on the plane, she had a warning:

"We have to be very careful as we are trying to move toward the establishment of a Palestinian state of actions and statements that erode confidence in the parties' commitment to a two-state solution," she said. "Even if the intentions are good and even if the actual events on the ground are intended to produce a certain kind of outcome, this is a very delicate time.

She added: "It's just a time to be extremely careful."

Rice is also using this trip to try to build up Arab support for the conference, amid much skepticism. She plans a stop in Egypt on Tuesday and on the way home will stop in London, where she will meet with Jordan's King Abdullah.

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