Rice Helps Lay Groundwork for Mideast Peace Talks Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is set to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Rice is trying to lay the groundwork for a U.S.-sponsored conference on Middle East peace scheduled for next month.
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Rice Helps Lay Groundwork for Mideast Peace Talks

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Rice Helps Lay Groundwork for Mideast Peace Talks

Rice Helps Lay Groundwork for Mideast Peace Talks

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JAMES HATTORI, host:

That Russian human rights activist was hoping for better things from Condoleezza Rice's weekend visit to Moscow. And the secretary of state didn't seem to win over President Vladimir Putin either; he didn't give an inch on his opposition to America's plans for a missile defense.

This morning Rice flew to the Middle East for talks that are, also, unlikely to be much of a picnic. She is set to meet with Israeli and Palestinian leaders. They want to make progress ahead of a U.S. sponsored conference next month in Annapolis, Maryland.

NPR's Michele Kelemen is with Secretary Rice in Jerusalem.

Michele, Israel and Palestinian negotiating teams have been meeting in advance of Rice's visit. What are the issues that the two sides have been working on?

MICHELE KELEMEN: Well, Secretary Rice, on the plane over here, said that's what she wants to find out? To get a sense of how things are going. She thinks that two sides are building up some confidence but have a long way to go. She talked about how all of this is in really the early stages. But she's hoping that this document, whatever form it takes, that it does deal in a substantial way with the core issues and those are the borders of a Palestinians state, the right of return Palestinian refugees in Jerusalem.

And these are the so called the final status issues. They haven't been dealt in a serious way since the Clinton administration. So for now Rice says, they're basically just trying to build up confidence and to hammer out a statement that would give a clearer path toward a Palestinian state. And when I asked her in a way that these was going to spell out the end game, as a lot of the analyst say is needed, she would only say, again, that she wanted to be substantive and deal with the core issues.

HATTORI: So what kinds of ideas does Secretary Rice hoping to bring to the table there?

KELEMEN: Well, there again, she was really downplaying expectations. She told us on the plane that, you know, while everyone is expecting a moment when the U.S. says, oh, here's what we think, she doesn't think that's particularly helpful or useful and she said this is really about what the Israelis and the Palestinians can do. She made clear that she's also suspicious of setting timetables and in held this process will go forward, and she just said she wanted to have some forward momentum.

I asked whether she sees a possibility of a Palestinian state by the end of her term; and she could only say that she can promised 100 percent effort but there's a lot of work to be done not only in bridging the gaps between the Israelis and Palestinians, but also in the institution building in the Palestinian territories if they are to have a function in the state.

HATTORI: In recent months, there have been some wrinkles to this always difficult negotiations. The west bank is now under Fattah, Gaza is under Hamas. Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas and Israel's Prime Minister Ehud Olmert are both politically weakened. How are these factors likely to affect the chances for success?

KELEMEN: Rice acknowledged that this is not, in her words, the perfect circumstances to try to get the Palestinians and Israelis to develop this pathway to a Palestinian state. But she thinks the circumstance are better now than earlier in the year, at least, when Hamas was in the Palestinian government. Frankly, this is what the U.S. is going to have to deal with.

HATTORI: What are Washington's hopes or perhaps expectations for next month's conference?

KELEMEN: Mainly it's to bring the Israelis and Palestinians together also with key Arab partners and other international players to boost this sort of bilateral track that they're trying to build up. Secretary Rice is going to be spending one day on this trip in Cairo to meet with President Hosni Mubarak, and she's also going to be meeting Jordan's king on the way home. We'll be seeing him in London.

HATTORI: Before we let you go, Michele, it didn't seem, from here at least, that Secretary Rice's trip to Russia went terribly well. What were your impressions?

KELEMEN: Well, it's funny, you know, U.S. officials kept insisting they did make progress but from our perspective, too, the relations look pretty frosty. The main issue for her was missile defense. Russia opposes this plan to put missiles in Poland and radar in the Chez Republic, and Rice went there with Defense Secretary Robert Gates to offer some proposals to work together with the Russians.

But Russia's foreign minister said he'd still like to see the U.S. freeze its plans. He questioned the need for this missile defense and Vladimir Putin made this off-end remark about building missile defenses on the moon. And so, he's just seemed to have joke about the idea. The Americans insists that he was more constructive behind the scenes but Secretary Rice also told us at the end of the visit that, you know, if the Russians want to cooperate we've given them what they need.

HATTORI: NPR's Michele Kelemen is traveling with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in the Middle East.

Thank you, Michele.

KELEMEN: You're welcome.

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