Rice Visits Bethlehem to See Palestinian Life

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Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visits the town of Bethlehem to get a sense of life for the Palestinians, as she pursues diplomatic efforts to convene Mideast peace talks next month. Rice's aides say the trip is an effort to get in touch with regular Palestinians.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is in the Middle East, laying groundwork for a conference to kick-start the Arab-Israeli peace process. At his news conference this morning, President Bush said he's optimistic about the prospects for a Palestinian state. But Condoleezza Rice isn't hearing such optimistic signals in her visit there. She stopped today in Bethlehem, where she found inspiration for her faith and opportunity for diplomacy.

NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN: For Secretary Rice, the daughter of a Presbyterian minister, today's visit to Bethlehem was a personal one.

Secretary CONDOLEEZZA RICE (U.S. Department of State): Being here at the birthplace of my Lord and savior, Jesus Christ, has been a very special and moving experience. And I was saying earlier that I think I could spell Bethlehem before I could spell my name.

KELEMEN: She lit a candle in the grotto of the Church of the Nativity, and in a courtyard said, quote, "The prince of peace is still with me."

Sec. RICE: These great monotheistic religions that have inhabited this land together have an opportunity to overcome differences, to put aside grievances, to make the power of religion a power of healing and a power of reconciliation rather than a power of division.

KELEMEN: But Palestinians there wanted to show how divided and walled off they feel because of the barrier that the Israelis are building in and around the West Bank to protect against suicide bombers. Rice's motorcade zipped right pass the concrete watch towers and the wall, which is covered with graffiti on the Palestinian side, but a bare grey on the Israeli side, except for a banner that reads peace and love.

Mr. JOHNNY KATTAN (General Manager, Bethlehem's Intercontinental Hotel): It's not just a wall. It's under the concept of being enclosed, not only physically, but also economically.

KELEMEN: That's Johnny Kattan who's in charge of Bethlehem's Intercontinental Hotel, where Rice met with a small group of civic leaders, academics and business people. Kattan says the hotel is only 20 percent occupied now, which is better than last year, but not enough to break even.

Mr. KATTAN: Business is very low. If there is no political movement in the air, I don't think we will see any potential for business in the near future, which means less and less jobs for the people, which means more poverty.

KELEMENL: Rice's aide say the trip to Bethlehem was part of her effort to get out of the bubble, not just meeting with politicians from the two sides. But she was back into the political turmoil later in the day in Ramallah, where a Palestinian government spokesman, Nabil Abu Rdeneh, complained that Israel is not serious about negotiating.

Mr. NABIL ABU RDENEH (Palestinian Government Spokesman): The Israeli obstacles are continuing, whether they're assassinations or they're incursions or whether this policy of settlement - which is going - still going on. That's why I'm saying that Israelis are not serious enough.

KELEMEN: In Jerusalem, Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said she doesn't want to play the blame game.

Foreign Minister TZIPI LIVNI (Israel): The idea is not to waste expectations that can lead to frustration and to violence. The idea is to reach an understanding, to find a common ground, to find what is the common denominator on the open issues.

KELEMEN: She is leading the Israeli team that's working with the Palestinians on a joint paper to be presented to a conference Rice plans to hold. Secretary Rice says the meeting in Annapolis won't be just a photo-op, but she has yet to set a date, as skeptics suggest the timeframe could slip.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Jerusalem.

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