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Rice Hails Fundamental Choices by Israel and Palestinians

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice says Israel and the Palestinians are beginning to make good fundamental choices, putting progress on the Middle East peace road map within reach. Ms. Rice met a senior Israeli envoy Monday in preparation for her first foreign trip since taking office, which begins later this week and includes talks in Israel and the West Bank.

Ms. Rice says a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will still require a great deal of work.

But she says she is encouraged by recent steps by the two sides toward a renewal of peace efforts, and says she thinks progress on the road map to a settlement is in her words, "in our grasp."

The new secretary of state made the comments at a get-acquainted, town hall meeting with staff members on her third day on the job at the State Department.

She said she thinks that parties are beginning to be responsive to the June 2002 challenge by President Bush for the Palestinians to end terrorism and build democratic institutions through new leadership, and for the Israelis to create conditions in which a Palestinian state, on contiguous land, can emerge.

"The good thing about the last couple of months has been that I think you are starting to see the parties make good fundamental choices," she said. "And as they make those good fundamental choices, it opens up the possibility of getting back on the Road Map toward a two-state solution. I don't think any of us doubt that without a Palestinian state that is viable, that can represent the aspirations of the Palestinian people, that there really isn't going to be a peace for either the Palestinian people, or for the Israelis."

The new Secretary of State begins her first foreign trip, an eight-day mission to Europe and the Middle East, starting Thursday. She is due to arrive in Israel Sunday and will hold talks with senior Israeli and Palestinian officials in Jerusalem and the West Bank the following day.

Ms. Rice met privately at the State Department Monday with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's chief-of-staff, Dov Weisglass.

They had met frequently last year at the White House when Ms. Rice was President Bush's National Security Adviser, as Mr. Sharon was preparing his initiative for Israeli disengagement from Gaza and parts of the West Bank.

Israeli Ambassador to Washington Daniel Ayalon told reporters Mr. Weisglass would stress the importance of expanding Israeli-Palestinian security cooperation, evident during the Palestinian elections in January, in advance of the planned Gaza withdrawal.