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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)Source: http://www.reuters.com/newsArticle.jhtml?type=topNews&storyID=7456227 Reuters News Service Reuters News Service Articles-Index-TopPublishers-Index-Top
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.

´POISONOUS CONFLICT´

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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