Rice Begins Middle East Tour in Jerusalem

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice arrives in Jerusalem to start a Middle East tour aimed at nudging Israelis and Palestinians toward peace talks. She has no specific proposal to offer, and U.S. relations with Iran complicate the mission.

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Debbie Elliott.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice embarked on a Middle East tour this weekend, but there are only limited expectations she can make progress in the search for peace between Israel and the Palestinians. On this trip, Rice will also be trying to drum up support for U.S. efforts in Iraq.

NPR's Michele Kelemen is traveling with the secretary and joins us from Jerusalem, the first stop on Rice's tour.

Michele, this seems like an awkward time for negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. The Palestinians have a government led by Hamas which the U.S. and Israel both consider a terrorist organization, and now the Palestinians are fighting among themselves.

MICHELE KELEMEN: That's right. And Secretary Rice said she didn't come here with any real proposal or plan. She said no plan can be made in America. So really these talks that she had tonight with Israeli officials and tomorrow with Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas are mainly a chance for her to test the waters.

With the Palestinians, it's especially complicated. The Israelis are very skeptical about Abbas's efforts to set up a national unity government with Hamas. The U.S. has been trying to embolden Abbas, but the Palestinians say the only way he can be emboldened is to show that he's delivering on the peace process.

So there's been all sorts of speculation about, you know, how the U.S. and Israel can try to accelerate the road map to a two-state solution, to give what both Rice and her Israeli counterpart, Tzipi Livni, have been talking about, a political horizon to the Palestinians, show that there's a real clear path to a Palestinian state.

This is the talk, but it's really all still in the early stages.

ELLIOTT: Now, over the past few days, the secretary has been facing questions also about U.S. intentions toward Iran, specifically after a U.S. attack on an Iranian office in Iraq. Has Rice had anything more to say about that on her current trip?

KELEMEN: Yes. She was asked about it on the plane but also in her brief appearance tonight with Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni. Rice said the U.S. is responding to Iranian activities, that the Iranians are threatening not just Iraq's government but also U.S. forces. So she said the U.S. is going to continue to go after what she called these Iranian networks in Iraq. And she said she thinks this can be done inside Iraq, though she wasn't ruling out any other options when she was asked specifically whether the U.S. would do any cross-border attacks.

ELLIOTT: Tomorrow Secretary Rice is scheduled to be in the West Bank. Where does she go from there?

KELEMEN: She's also visiting Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, and then stopping in a couple European capitols on the way home. And really, this part of it is going to be focused on Iraq, on building support for the president's Iraq strategy.

Secretary Rice keeps painting the Middle East as this battleground between moderates and extremists. She says this is the case in the Palestinian territories, in Lebanon and in Iraq. And the U.S. officials seem to be banking on this idea that these Arab states fear Iran's influence, not only in Iraq but also in Iran supporting extremists elsewhere in the Middle East, that this fear of Iran can somehow be a glue binding these Arab states together. That seems to be at least the policy that she's pursuing.

ELLIOTT: Michele, before we let you go, I'd like to ask you about this flap that has been reported between Secretary Rice and Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer. When Secretary Rice was testifying during a Senate hearing this past week, Senator Boxer told her that neither of them would pay a personal price for the war in Iraq, that she, Senator Boxer, did not have children or grandchildren in the military and that Secretary Rice had no immediate family.

Ms. Rice then later suggested in a New York Times interview that Senator Boxer had dealt a blow to feminism by highlighting Ms. Rice's single status. Has there been any further clarification of this?

KELEMEN: Well, she was asked about this again and her answer was, well, being a single woman doesn't make me incapable of understanding the sacrifices in Iraq, that she's been visiting soldiers and families and it's something we all feel personally.

It was interesting because Tzipi Livni, the Israeli foreign minister who does have children, came to her rescue and she said that in her talks, Rice showed a lot of feelings about what's happening in Iraq. These are clearly two women that have some personal connections.

ELLIOTT: NPR's Michele Kelemen in Jerusalem. Thank you.

KELEMEN: You're welcome.

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Rice Visits a Mideast Locked in Turmoil

Hamas and Fatah flags are raised during a rally to celebrate the 42 years of the Fatah founding. i i

hide captionHamas and Fatah flags are raised during a rally to celebrate the 42 years of the Fatah founding in the West Bank town of Hebron.

Hazem Bader/AFP/Getty Images
Hamas and Fatah flags are raised during a rally to celebrate the 42 years of the Fatah founding.

Hamas and Fatah flags are raised during a rally to celebrate the 42 years of the Fatah founding in the West Bank town of Hebron.

Hazem Bader/AFP/Getty Images

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice meets with leaders in Israel and the Palestinian territories this weekend at the start of a weeklong Mideast tour. Her attempt to jump-start moribund Arab-Israeli peace talks comes at an extremely difficult time: Palestinians are embroiled in a fierce internal power fight and Israel's prime minister is hobbled by low approval ratings, political strife and allegations of government corruption.

Tens of thousands of Fatah loyalists showed up in the West Bank city of Ramallah Thursday for a celebration of the movement's founding. Big posters of the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and colored balloons fed the festive atmosphere as smoke from grilled kebabs wafted over the crowd.

But the keynote address from current Fatah leader and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas underscored just how large a shadow Arafat still casts. The crowd wanted Arafat-like inspiration from Abbas. Instead they were chastised by the man who's become a politically damaged, Lear-like figure: In the middle of his speech promising a future Palestinian state, Abbas abruptly halted and admonished the crowd.

"I hear gunfire and shooting in the air right now. Please stop it!" Abbas yelled. "We completely reject this shooting and chaos, please enough! Just as we completely reject the shooting of our brothers in the other factions!"

It was a telling moment as Abbas addressed the lawlessness and violent internal tensions tearing apart the Palestinian Authority. While fending off — and at times trying to negotiate — with the ruling Islamists of Hamas, Abbas is also desperately trying to rebuild a Fatah party that has lost street credibility and public trust.

At least 30 Palestinians have been killed in factional violence since Abbas called for early elections last month in a bid to end the impasse with Hamas. No date for the election has been set.

It's in this context of division and stalemate that Condoleezza Rice makes her eighth visit to the region since becoming secretary of state two years ago.

"The United States has to invest more energy, more time into pushing the peace process forward," says Fatah lawmaker Abdullah Abdullah, an adviser to Abbas.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Abdullah says, seems unwilling or unable to make-good on recent, relatively minor confidence-building pledges — including lifting some roadblocks in the occupied West Bank and transferring Palestinian tax revenue that Israel has withheld since Hamas' election win a year ago.

Instead of progress, Abdullah fumes, Palestinians got a deadly Israeli military raid into Ramallah — the seat of Fateh's power — just as Olmert was meeting with Egypt's president to try to advance the peace process.

"He promised many steps to be taken. None of them has been carried out," Abdullah said. "Except that the Israelis sent their soldiers into the center of Ramallah to kill and wound and destroy property. Is this the way to make peace with the Palestinians, to move forward?"

A spokesman for the Israeli Civil Administration in the West Bank concedes that no roadblocks have been removed yet. So far, Israeli officials say, barely $10 million of the pledged $100 million in tax funds have been transferred to Abbas's office.

Few expect Secretary Rice to make any significant breakthroughs while here. A senior Israeli official said expectations "are realistic."

Mark Regev of Israel's Foreign Ministry says the path to a two-state solution is clear: Palestinians embracing moderation and rejecting Hamas.

"Then the door is opened to very tangible political progress," Regev said. "To a Palestinian state not in the distant future but a very tangible, immediate possibility for independence — once they've renounced these extremist ideas that Hamas espouses."

But it's not at all clear Abbas or Olmert can deliver any concrete progress: Olmert remains politically weakened with his approval rating near an all-time low.

Harsh public criticism continues of his handling of last summer's war in Lebanon with Hezbollah and a series of corruption scandals has further hobbled the prime minister.

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