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Arabs Press Rice, Gates on Palestinian Issue


Arab diplomats meeting with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates in Egypt pressed the Bush administration for action to revive the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. President Bush has proposed an international meeting on the Middle East conflict sometime this autumn. VOA's David Gollust reports from the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh.

Bush administration officials have been vague about the make-up and precise purpose of the meeting on the Israeli-Palestinian issue to be convened later this year by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

But the Arab ministers meeting with Rice and Gates say they want the conference to yield tangible and early progress toward a two-state solution of the Middle East conflict, despite the split in Palestinian ranks that has left the militant Islamic Hamas movement in control of the Gaza Strip.

The secretary of state and defense secretary, on an unusual joint mission, met with senior officials of Egypt, Jordan, and the six-member countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council for talks they hope will generate more Sunni Arab support for Iraq's Shiia-led coalition government.

But speaking for his Arab colleagues at a news conference with Rice, Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul-Gheit put stress on the Palestinian issue, saying he would like to see an elaborate agenda for the U.S.-hosted meeting, giving impetus to the establishment of a Palestinian state in the very near future.

"I believe that what is needed is accelerated moves in order to reach the horizon of that state, and an agreement between the Israeli government and the Palestinian authority regarding this settlement," he said. "This settlement that will be presented to the Palestinian people. If we wait, I believe this will have a negative impact on the general situation in dealing with the Palestinian issue."

Secretary Rice said she intends to visit to region frequently in the coming months to lay a proper foundation for the meeting to spur further progress. But she said an international meeting can be no substitute for dialogue between the two parties, which she hopes to stimulate in talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders this week in Jerusalem and Ramallah in the West Bank.

"The reason to have an international meeting is to advance the progress of the two parties toward a two-state solution," she said. "No one can have a discussion, no one can have a negotiation in lieu of, or in place of the parties. This is something that the parties have to do. But there can be international efforts to support, diplomatically, what the parties are doing."

The talks here also covered U.S. plans, announced Monday, to step up U.S. military aid to Israel, Egypt and Gulf Arab states, in part to help them deal with a more aggressive posture by Iran in the region.

Foreign Minister Gheit said he was amazed at Iran's critical response to the aid announcement, given that the U.S. military aid relationship with Egypt and the Gulf countries spans more than two decades.

Under the plan, Egypt is to receive $13 billion in U.S. arms aid over 10 years and an as-yet-undetermined amount of security related economic assistance.

Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns is to visit the Gulf region in mid-August to discuss particulars of an aid package to Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states that could exceed $20 billion.

To preserve the regional military balance, the Bush administration would increase annual U.S. military aid to Israel by 25 percent, to $3 billion a year over a 10-year span. All the aid commitments would require Congressional approval.

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