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Rice Optimistic About Three-Way Middle East Talks


U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice says her pending meeting with Israeli and Palestinian leaders could produce a break-out in a dialogue between the parties that has stalled over local issues. Rice is in Kuwait for talks with Gulf region foreign ministers on Iraq and the Middle East conflict. VOA's David Gollust reports from Kuwait.

The agreement for the three-way meeting is the only tangible achievement, thus far, of a Rice mission to the Middle East otherwise aimed at rallying moderate Arab support behind Iraq's struggling government.

The Secretary capped talks with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority chief Mahmoud Abbas earlier this week with an announcement that she would convene with them in three or four weeks time for an informal discussion of what a two-state solution to the conflict would entail.

It will be the first top-level discussion of the so-called "final status" issues of the peace process since 2000, when former President Bill Clinton tried to mediate a comprehensive peace accord at Camp David in the closing months of his term in office.

In a talk with reporters traveling with her in Kuwait, Rice said she hopes the meeting will add momentum to struggling Israeli-Palestinian contacts on local issues and, as she put it, "break the ice" for a discussion of the more profound questions they face:

"The advantage here is that rather than talking about what we are going to do this month in terms of this checkpoint or that transfer of funds, they are going to be encouraged to talk more broadly about how they get to the future and establish the Palestinian state," Rice says. "And I think that for quite some time, there has been a concern that if you only talked about the obligations under the first phase of the 'roadmap,' as if the roadmap precluded talking about other things, that we would never make progress. And so I think that this is a chance to break through that."

Rice has indicated that the three-way talks might be the first of a series of meetings intended to provide the Palestinians, in particular, with a so-called "political horizon," a better idea of what their future could hold if they remain committed to peaceful dialogue.

Arab allies of the United States have been pushing the Bush administration to work harder for an Israeli-Palestinian settlement, arguing that the lingering dispute undermines efforts at progress on other Middle East problems, including Iraq.

At a joint press appearance with Rice in Riyadh, Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal stressed support for the initiative.

"I would like to express our welcome to assertions of Secretary Rice on renewing the commitment of the U.S. administration to make progress in the peace process," al-Faisal says. "Establishing the Palestinian state and intensification of U.S. efforts to solve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. We also are looking forward to ending the blockade and closure imposed on the Palestinian territories, stopping incursions, and collective punishment of the Palestinian people that increase its human suffering."

Rice has said the dialogue would not replace the international Roadmap to a peace accord. But she has suggested it might help shorten the implementation time of the plan, intended on its release in 2003 as a three-year program of corresponding confidence building steps by both sides.

The secretary, in her talks with reporters, joined Palestinian Authority chief Abbas in dismissing an idea floated by Israel for declaring provisional statehood for Palestinians on territory they now control. Rice said it might be more difficult to negotiate an interim state than an "end-game" statehood accord.

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