Rice to visit Middle East, signals U.S. push for peace (REUTERS) By Arshad Mohammed and Saul Hudson WASHINGTON 01/27/05 03:54 PM ET)
Reuters News Service
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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Condoleezza Rice will visit the Middle East
and Europe next month on her first trip as U.S. secretary of state to
make a new push on Middle East peace and to mend ties with European
allies, officials said on Thursday.
The Feb. 3-10 trip to seven European nations as well as to Turkey,
Israel and the Palestinian territories aims in part to show the Bush
administration´s desire to focus on Middle East peace following the
death of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
Critics believe U.S. President George W. Bush has done too little to
promote an Israeli-Palestinian settlement during his first four years
in office, and in much of the Arab world, the United States is seen
as an unquestioning supporter of Israel.
U.S. officials regard Arafat´s death as a chance to revive peace
efforts after years of violence and stalemate and are eager to
promote cooperation between new Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas
and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
Abbas, elected president on Jan. 9 on a platform of ending more than
four years of bloodshed, has been pursuing a truce deal with Hamas
and other Palestinian militant groups. He has also deployed
Palestinian security forces in Gaza, where a drop in violence has
raised hopes that peacemaking can be revived.
Sharon, who would not deal with Arafat but has offered to meet Abbas,
on Thursday said he believed conditions were right for a "historic
breakthrough" with the Palestinians.
Rice will visit Britain, Germany, Poland, Israel, Italy, France,
Belgium and Luxembourg in Europe, where ties have been frayed by the
Iraq war, as well as Turkey, Israel and the West Bank, State
Department spokesman Richard Boucher said.
The trip was announced on Rice´s first full day as the top U.S.
diplomat, which she began by telling U.S. diplomats she would restore
their influence after the foreign policy professionals often felt
marginalized in Bush´s first term.
"The State Department has got to be in the lead in this period in
which diplomacy will be so important to solidifying the gains of the
last few years," she told employees who crowded the State Department
lobby to greet their new boss.
One of Bush´s closest confidants during the last four years as White
House national security adviser, Rice may bring more clout to the job
than her predecessor, Colin Powell, who lost a number of policy
battles to the Defense Department.
Deputy Assistant Secretary of State David Satterfield reflected U.S.
hopes for ending what he called "this poisonous conflict" following
Arafat´s death and Abbas´ election.
"We are at a moment right now which is, to put it mildly, hopeful. A
moment which offers the greatest opportunity in what has been a very
sad litany of hopelessness and despair over the course of the past
four years," Satterfield told a conference on the Middle East.
But he stressed challenges, notably of stopping Palestinian violence
against Israelis and of rebuilding trust between the two sides
shredded by the violence that erupted after the last serious round of
peace talks collapsed in 2000.
Satterfield suggested that fresh political peace talks are possible
if the Palestinians can create responsible governing institutions and
stop violence against Israelis, and if Israel carries through on its
plan to withdraw from all 21 Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip and
four in the West Bank.
"If Israel sees the emergence of a Palestinian partner, if Gaza
withdrawal works in the truest sense of the word, a return to a
broader political process should be assured," Satterfield, one of the
State Department´s top Middle East experts, said.
"But there are no short cuts to this goal ... calls for an immediate
resumption of permanent status talks are premature. They ignore the
importance of both Israelis and Palestinians taking the concrete
steps to rebuild trust and confidence." (© Reuters 2005 01/27/05)
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