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Rice to Visit Israel & West Bank


The State Department says Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will visit the Middle East and Africa in an overseas trip beginning July 16th. She will meet Israeli and Palestinian leaders and attend a trade conference in the Ghanaian capital, Accra. VOA's David Gollust reports from the State Department.

Rice's trip to the Middle East will be her fifth to the region this year, but her first since the militant Islamic group Hamas routed forces of the mainstream Fatah movement last month and seized control of the Gaza strip.

The victory of Hamas, which the United States lists as a terrorist organization, dealt a blow to efforts by the Bush administration to shore up the position of Palestinian Authority President Mamoud Abbas of Fatah, who unlike Hamas recognizes Israel and supports a two-state settlement of the Middle East conflict.

An official here said Rice will meet Mr. Abbas in Ramallah, and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in Jerusalem, at the start of a five-day overseas trip that begins July 16th.

There have been press reports that Rice may also attend a meeting in Egypt of the Middle East Quartet, a grouping that includes the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations and which has been trying to promote a settlement based on its 2003 "road map" for peace.

The official said additional stops for Rice are possible and that a formal announcement of her travel plans will come on Monday.

In the wake of the Gaza events, the Quartet late last month renewed its commitment to seeking an end to the regional conflict under terms of the road map, and it named former British Prime Minister Tony Blair a special envoy charged with helping build institutions for Palestinian statehood.

Quartet envoys including U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Welch are to meet in London next Tuesday to discuss practical details of the Blair mission.

U.S. officials say Secretary Rice expects to retain the lead role in Middle East diplomacy and in a talk with reporters Friday, State Department Deputy Spokesman Tom Casey said there are no plans for Mr. Blair to work with, or meet with, members of Hamas.

"I'd leave it up to the envoys to determine what his specific instructions are. But, again, if you look at the terms of reference that were in the last Quartet statement, it makes it pretty clear that his main role is to build Palestinian institutions, working with the president (Abbas) and the current government there. So I'm not envisioning him having any particular role vis-à-vis Hamas, but again I'll leave it to the members of the Quartet to talk about the specifics of his interaction," he said.

When she last visited Israel and the West Bank in March, Rice announced that President Abbas and Prime Minister Olmert had agreed to meet every two weeks to discuss the outlines of a final peace accord. However, the two politically-weakened leaders have been unable to keep to that schedule.

In Ghana, Secretary Rice will attend a regional forum of the nearly 40 sub-Saharan African countries receiving U.S. trade benefits under AGOA, the African Growth and Opportunity Act approved by the U.S. Congress in 2000.

Administration officials say the measure, which lowered U.S. trade barriers to African goods, has helped to more than double the annual volume of American trade with the region and create thousands of jobs in Africa.

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