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Rice in Middle East to Meet with Israeli and Palestinian Leaders

Throughout much of her first official trip abroad, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has stressed the importance of Middle East peacemaking efforts. She is now in the region to talk with Israeli and Palestinian leaders and encourage them to move forward.

President Bush promised to make resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the establishment of an independent Palestinian state - all under the road map peace plan - a top priority during his second term in office.

Ms. Rice comes here as Israelis and Palestinians prepare for their own summit in Egypt on Tuesday that will also include the Egyptians and Jordanians, but not the Americans.

The secretary has told reporters that's not a bad thing. She said the United States will remain engaged, and be there if bilateral and regional peace efforts falter. Right now, she says, it's best for the protagonists to move ahead on their own.

Israeli officials welcome that approach. Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev told VOA there is a real opportunity to move toward peace, created especially by the election of new Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

"The diplomatic - political process was in deep freeze as long as Mr. [Yasser] Arafat was there," he said. "The election of Abbas and his willingness to move forward on the road map to take substantive steps against terrorism will enable this process to move forward."

Mr. Regev said the decision by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to withdraw from the Gaza Strip has also helped create, what he called, an "amazing diplomatic opportunity."

Palestinian officials would prefer a more hands-on U.S. approach. Speaking on Palestinian radio, senior negotiator Saeb Erekat said Ms. Rice should convince the Israelis to be more forthcoming.

He says it's time for Ms. Rice to put some pressure on the Israelis, to convince them to begin implementing the road map and especially in dismantling roadblocks and releasing Palestinian prisoners.

Israeli and Palestinian officials have been meeting in recent days to try to finalize plans for a possible cease-fire, an Israeli withdrawal from several West Bank cities and the release of up to 900 Palestinian prisoners. Talks have snagged on the prisoner issue, with Israel initially saying the release could not include anyone involved in violence, and the Palestinians calling for greater flexibility by Israel.

Secretary Rice meets with Prime Minister Sharon Sunday evening, and travels to the West Bank city of Ramallah on Monday for talks with President Abbas and other Palestinian officials. She then returns to Europe, while Mr. Sharon and Mr. Abbas get ready to head to Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt for their one-day summit on Tuesday.