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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 05:49 PM ET)Source: http://www.reuters.com/newsArticle.jhtml?type=topNews&storyID=7458577 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 countries as well as to Turkey, Israel and the West Bank 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 President 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, Italy, France, Belgium and Luxembourg in Europe, where ties have been frayed by the Iraq war, the State Department 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 seek to restore their influence after the foreign policy professionals often felt marginalized in Bush´s first term.

Rice also telephoned Abbas, whom she expects to see on her trip, as well as a host of foreign leaders, including Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, the foreign ministers of Canada, Egypt, Jordan, Mexico, Brazil, Romania, Russia and Chile.

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 "this poisonous conflict" following Arafat´s death and Abbas´ election, saying: "We are at a moment right now which is, to put it mildly, hopeful."

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.

"The opportunity exists to move forward but success remains an uncertain proposition," he told a conference on the Middle East. "No one should assume that the two-state solution is an indefinite possibility."

"There is a sad irony that at a time when the outlines of a settlement have never been clearer, continuing violence, the consequences of three decades of settlement activity and simple demographics threaten to put that ... out of reach," he said.

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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