Rice Hopes Israel Trip Can Revive Peace Process

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visits Israel in an attempt to revive the moribund Middle East peace process. Amid few signs that peace can be achieved in the short term, Rice says she hopes to move the process forward.

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DEBORAH AMOS, host:

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is in Baghdad today. She flew from Jerusalem on an unannounced visit. Before arriving there, Secretary Rice was wrapping up a Middle East tour, with little progress to show.

On the final leg of this trip she met with the Israeli and Palestinian prime ministers separately. She pushed Israel to make at least small concessions to the Palestinians. One is reopening border crossings from Gaza into Israel and into Egypt to help relive sever economic hardships.

NPR's Linda Gradstein has more from Jerusalem.

LINDA GRADSTEIN: Secretary Rice's trip to the Middle East came as Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is under fire for his handling of the recent war between Israel and Hezbollah guerillas in Lebanon, and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas is trying to handle the worst internal Palestinian violence between his Fatah movement and the ruling Hamas in years. It hardly seems the right time for a new peace push. But speaking in a news conference with Abbas, Secretary Rice said that's exactly why she came.

Secretary CONDOLEEZZA RICE (United States Secretary of State): ...a process by which Palestinians and Israelis can move forward to the day when there are two states. We know we have a lot of work to do in between, but you have the strong commitment of the United States to that cause.

GRADSTEIN: Rice met Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert last night, and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Defense Minister Amir Peretz this morning. She told Livni she believes the economic boycott of the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority is effective and that the international community will continue that boycott, imposed after Hamas won the Palestinian elections in January.

One of the main issues on the agenda was the reopening of the Rafah border crossing between Gaza and Egypt and the Karni crossing for goods between Gaza and Israel. Palestinians say the frequent closures of both of these crossings has made a difficult economic situation even worse. Israeli officials say Palestinians have used the Rafah crossing to smuggle money and weapons into Gaza. A senior Israeli official said there were some interesting ideas about the crossings, but that nothing was finalized.

Abbas also asked Rice to pressure Israel to release Palestinian prisoners. But Olmert said Israel won't do that before captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit is returned to Israel. He said such a release would only cause Hamas to increase its demands in exchange for Shalit's release.

Israeli analyst Gerald Steinberg says the U.S. is understanding of the Israeli position.

Professor GERALD STEINBERG (Professor of Political Studies, Bar-Ilan University, Israel): There's no sign of real pressure on Israel. The United States doesn't like the idea of releasing terrorists to obtain freedom of kidnapped hostages, and I don't think there's a real disagreement on that.

GRADSTEIN: Arab media reports had said that a deal was in the works in which Israel would release nearly 1,000 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for Shalit, but that Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal in Damascus told Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh not to go through with it.

Yesterday, Russian officials said two other Israeli soldiers captured by Hezbollah in July were alive and well. Israeli officials say they believe Shalit is also alive.

Steinberg says it's also unlikely that Olmert will meet Abbas until Shalit is freed. But Secretary Rice did ask Olmert to try to strengthen Abbas. Her request comes amid violent clashes between Fatah and Hamas that left at least 12 Palestinians killed over the past few days.

Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev told Israel television that Israel is concerned by the violence.

Mr. MARK REGEV (Spokesman, Israeli Foreign Ministry): What we're seeing unfortunately in the Palestinian Authority is the continuation of the breakup of the Palestinian government. We're seeing, unfortunately, a greater situation of anarchy, a dysfunctional Palestinian body politic.

It's not to Israel's interest. We have no interest whatsoever living next to a failed society, a failed state. On the contrary, we'd like to see the Palestinians enjoy economic prosperity and political stability. We'd like to see a strong Palestinian partner so we could conduct a peace process. This is in no one's interest.

GRADSTEIN: Analysts on both sides say no one expected Secretary Rice to make significant progress on this trip. But her presence was a way of showing Israelis and Palestinians that the U.S. is ready and willing to help both sides if they decide they want to renew negotiations.

Linda Gradstein, NPR News, Jerusalem.

AMOS: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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