Rice in Middle East for New Round of Talks Condoleezza Rice is traveling to the Middle East this week, her fourth trip in as many months. The U.S. Secretary of State is there for a new round of talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders.
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Rice in Middle East for New Round of Talks

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Rice in Middle East for New Round of Talks

Rice in Middle East for New Round of Talks

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is in Israel today for the fourth time in four months. She's not racking up frequent-flier miles. She's trying to get Israel and the Palestinians to resume negotiations. She met Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas today and has dinner with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

There will be no meetings with any officials from the new Palestinian unity government of Abbas' Fatah Party nor its rival, Hamas. Israel and the U.S. say Hamas must first recognize Israel and renounce violence before they can be considered a partner for dialogue.

NPR's Linda Gradstein joins us now from Jerusalem. Linda, Secretary Rice says she's starting a new approach to reviving peace efforts and saying she would pursue parallel talks with the two parties. What does she mean?

LINDA GRADSTEIN: It's not exactly clear. It seems to mean that she's going to undertake shuttle diplomacy between Abbas, who she's going to meet a second time tomorrow in Jordan, and Olmert, who she will meet later this evening. In the past, the United States has tried to push the two sides together, saying there has to be bilateral negotiations, that the United Nations can help but it can't do the work for it.

Now, it seems to be saying that bilateral talks don't seem to be working. Israel has said it will maintain contacts with Abbas, but it will only discuss humanitarian issues. It won't talk about political issues. And Secretary Rice seems to be saying, okay, you know, there's no other alternative and that she and the Bush administration are going to try a new push for peace.

At the same time, however, we just do have to remember that Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is very politically weak. The Palestinian unity government, Hamas, says it will never recognize Israel. So it seems unlikely that there will be any real breakthrough.

HANSEN: After the meeting today, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas said he would press to win the release of an Israeli soldier captured by Hamas last June. Is this new? Can you elaborate on that?

GRADSTEIN: No. This is a key issue for Israel. This is Corporal Gilad Shalit who was captured by several militant groups, one of which - including Hamas, last June. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert today said that Abbas had blatantly violated a promise to free Shalit before a Palestinian unity government was formed.

There have been negotiations going on for months now in which Israel will release hundreds of Palestinian prisoners - an estimated 800, 900, something like that - in exchange for Shalit's release. Apparently, they've come pretty close a couple of times to a deal, and at the last minute, it has always fallen through.

HANSEN: U.S. officials say Rice is sending out feelers on a 2002 Arab peace plan. What does that plan call for?

GRADSTEIN: This plan calls for a broad Arab-Israeli peace in which all moderate Arab states would sign peace treaties with Israel in exchange for a complete Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Israel rejected the plan when it first came out, but lately Israeli officials have been saying it has some positive elements. However, Israel says it will never agree to one clause of the plan, which calls for the right of the return of Palestinian refugees to their homes in what is now Israel. Right now, Arab states are saying the plan cannot be amended, but there seems to be some behind-the-scenes movement that this Arab peace plan might be the basis of negotiations, and it's going to be discussed at an Arab summit in Riyadh later this week.

HANSEN: NPR's Linda Gradstein in Jerusalem. Thank you, Linda.

GRADSTEIN: Thank you, Liane.

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