Rice Attempts to Revive Mideast Peace Deal

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Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is in the Middle East, trying to broker a peace initiative between Palestinians and Israelis. Steven Erlanger, Jerusalem bureau chief for The New York Times, talks with Alex Chadwick about Secretary Rice's negotiation attempts.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

And I'm Madeleine Brand.

Coming up, we gaze into the political crystal ball as Washington debates funding for the war and the future of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.

CHADWICK: First, to the Middle East, where there is increasing talk of a regional peace summit. Both the secretary general of the UN, Ban Ki-Moon, and the US secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, are in the region meeting with Israelis, Palestinian and other Arabs. And Arab nations hold a summit later this week to talk about a Saudi peace proposal that has lingered for five years.

Steven Erlanger is Jerusalem bureau chief of The New York Times.

Steven, welcome back to the show. And in the paper today, there's an article that says Secretary Rice is pressing what she calls a new approach to peace there in the region. What is new?

Mr. STEVEN ERLANGER (Jerusalem Bureau Chief, The New York Times): Well, we still have to find that out. Part of the problem with a peace plan is everybody kind of knows what it's going to be. We see the light at the end of the tunnel, but we can't find the entrance to the tunnel. And that's really what Ms. Rice is trying to do.

What she's hoping to do is to give Arab regional backing to a weak Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, to give him the courage and the backing to go into serious talks about a final peace settlement with Israel. And on the Israeli side, you have the very weak prime minister, also.

So the timing may not be right, but the Americans feel that there important fundamentals toward a peace settlement that happen here, and that some movement is better than deterioration, which is what we've been having for the last four years.

CHADWICK: Let me ask about this Arab summit meeting that's coming up later this week and this Saudi peace proposal that is several years old. Suddenly, there seems to be renewed interest in it.

Mr. ERLANGER: Well, it is interesting. The American notion is that Israel also needs a political horizon, a notion that there really will be peace at the end of this process with all Arab countries to make the painful concessions necessary for peace.

And in 2002, when this was first floated by an Arab summit in Beirut, it was in the middle of the height of the second intifada and Israel was preparing to go back into the West Bank and re-conquer it. There were suicide bombings, and, in fact, Hamas that same weekend blew up a hotel in Israel, which kind of put an end to serious discussion.

But what the Arabs in general are saying is if Israel will go back to 67 borders or boundaries and find a just and agreed upon solution to the refugee problem - in other words, solve the Palestinian problem - then Israel will be accepted in the region by all the Arab nations.

Now there's some people in the region like Iran - which after all is an Arab, which don't like this at all. But Ms. Rice believes that repeating that now will give support to the two-state solution - i.e., an Israel next to a Palestine that's beginning again to deteriorate under the pressure of Iran and its allies Hamas and Hezbollah.

CHADWICK: It can't be a coincidence that Secretary Rice and the Secretary General of the U.N. Ban Ki-Moon are both in the region at the same time. But it just seems like an unusual confluence of diplomatic effort in the area. And I wonder why.

Mr. ERLANGER: Well, very much the Americans are trying to make this into not just an American proposal. The United Nations is part of the so-called quartet with the U.S., European Union and Russia, which drew up the road map plan for peace, which seems pretty dead.

And the Americans know that with what's going on in Iraq, it's helpful to have broader support for their ideas. So dragging in the new General Secretary Ban Ki-Moon - who also has a whole set of interests himself and would like to make things better here - they can go together to the Arab summit, thereby have the backing of a big part of the West and not just Washington.

CHADWICK: Steven Erlanger of The New York Times, speaking with us from Jerusalem. Steven, thank you.

Mr. ERLANGER: You're very welcome.

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