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Rice Seeks to Accelerate Middle East Peace Roadmap

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is meeting senior Israeli and Palestinian officials in what she says is an effort to empower moderate political forces in the region and re-start Middle East peacemaking. Rice held talks late Saturday in Jerusalem with Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, and is to see Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas Sunday in the West Bank town of Ramallah. VOA's David Gollust reports from Jerusalem.

Rice says she has not come to the region with any new U.S. proposal or plan, and, in fact, says Middle East peace cannot be a made-in-America proposition.

But she says she wants to hear the ideas of both sides, in an effort to accelerate progress on the 2003 international Roadmap to an Israeli-Palestinian settlement, which is largely unfulfilled.

Meeting reporters as she began a late-Saturday meeting with Israeli Foreign Minister Livni, Rice called it a challenging time in the Middle East, but one that holds promise, if current problems, including the regional extremist threat are approached with creativity and resolve.

"It is a time when extremist forces are attempting to make it impossible to have the kind of Middle East in which Israelis and Palestinians and other people of the Middle East can live in peace, and in which democracy can make progress," said Ms. Rice.  "But we're determined to resist their efforts and also to strengthen the hand of those who wish to resist their efforts."

Rice has not elaborated on how she believes the Roadmap, originally intended as a three-year program leading to a two state solution, can be speeded up.

Israeli officials, including Livni, have been talking about the idea of declaring a Palestinian state with provisional borders within a two-year time frame.

The Israeli foreign minister did not directly address the issue in her press appearance with Rice, but said her government hopes to provide moderate Palestinians with a clearer picture of where the peace process is headed, without discarding Roadmap principles.

"I was not talking about jumping or skipping, or by-passing some of the phases of the Roadmap, but I do believe that talking with the Palestinians today [about] what are the best steps that we can take, maybe to make some visions, or as we say, make the political horizon more concrete. If this can help, then this is something that we have to do," she said.

The Bush administration has been seeking to bolster the relatively moderate Palestinian Authority chief, Mr. Abbas, in his political struggle with the militant Islamic movement Hamas.

On the eve of the Rice trip, it confirmed plans for an $86 million train and equip program for security forces under control of Mr. Abbas, while insisting the plan will not fuel the intra-Palestinian conflict.

Rice plans a dinner meeting with Jordan's King Abdullah late Sunday, before returning here for a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert Monday.

She continues the mission with talks in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, seeking to encourage Gulf Arab states to assist Iraq's struggling coalition government following President Bush's decision to commit more U.S. forces to try to stem Iraqi violence.

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