RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is in Berlin today meeting with Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel. Rice spent the first part of this week in the Middle East. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been one big topic of discussion on this trip; Iraq is the other.

NPR's Michele Kelemen is traveling with the Secretary and she joins us now. And a former secretary of state, James Baker, and the Iraq Study Group that he co-chaired urged a diplomatic push on Iraq, but noticeably, Condoleezza Rice isn't holding discussions with Iraq's neighbors, Iran and Syria, and the Bush administration clearly doesn't plan to.

MICHELE KELEMEN: That's right. And this was really a much different approach than the Iraq Study Group recommended. So rather than reaching out to all of Iraq's neighbors, Secretary Rice has tried to divide them in groups. So you have the moderates, the Arab allies with whom she met and won some support for the president's plan for Iraq; those are Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt and the Gulf states. And that's versus the extremists. And she accuses Iran and Syria of fueling extremism in Iraq. Now, many in the region are worried about Iran's influence, not only in Iraq but in the whole region. You had the Gulf Cooperation Council, which met her in Kuwait. And they issued this sort of veiled threat to stay out of Iraq. It didn't mention Iran by name, however. And you can really see these countries sort of hedging their bets. I mean, they're close neighbors to Iran; they have to deal with Iran. And right after we left Kuwait, Kuwait's foreign minister told reporters that the emir urged Rice to actually talk to Iran and Syria.

MONTAGNE: But again, no talking to Iran or Syria. What did Rice say about how she's approaching the conflicts in the Middle East?

KELEMEN: Well, toward the end of this trip, you know, we were all sitting in this guest house in Kuwait, and she sat down to talk with the reporters traveling with her about her views. And she talks about this new realignment in the Middle East, how - and she says that diplomacy only works when you get the context right. She often cites examples from her own dealings, her own workings in the government. She talks about German unification, that that could only happen when it did. And this was a quote that stood out for a lot of us. She said you aren't going to be successful as a diplomat if you don't understand the strategic context in which you're actually negotiating. It's not deal making. It's not. And so many of us on the trip were left wondering then what this trip is about, if we're just waiting for the right context.

MONTAGNE: What about the Arab-Israeli issue? Was there any progress there?

KELEMEN: Well, that's an area where it looks like the context is all wrong, because you have the Israeli prime minister very weak in the polls; you have Hamas, which the U.S. considers a terrorist organization running the Palestinian government. So what she tried to do there was really help the Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas, who is from a rival faction, the Fatah movement, which is at odds with Hamas, and try to give him a boost. So what she did was she announced that she'll be meeting, holding a trilateral meeting with Palestinian President Abbas and with Israel's Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to talk about the contours of the Palestinian state. So you see her really at least tip-toeing into the Israeli-Palestinian issue in a way that the Bush administration has been resisting up to now.

And here in Europe she's also telling Europeans that in addition to this trilateral meeting we're going to try to revive this quartet, which is the U.S., Russia, European Union and United Nations. And she announced that this group of would-be Middle East peacemakers are going to meet, probably in Washington in early February.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Michele Kelemen, traveling with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, speaking to us from Berlin. Thanks very much.

KELEMEN: You're welcome, Renee.

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