U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who arrived in Israel two days before an Egyptian-sponsored summit meeting between Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, says it is a time of optimism and opportunity for Middle East peace-making, a time, she says, "we have to seize."
In comments as she began talks with Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, Ms. Rice said fundamental changes are underway in the Palestinian territories, with a new leadership that has expressed desire for a peaceful future with Israel.
She also praised the Sharon government's decision to disengage from Gaza and four Israeli settlements in the West Bank, and said the United States will ask Israel to continue to take the hard decisions that must be taken to promote peace and the emergence of a democratic Palestinian state.
Despite the fact that Ms. Rice will be in the region on the eve of the Sharon-Abbas meeting in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, Ms. Rice has said she will not attend, saying the United States wants to nurture, but not take the lead role in peace efforts she says are best left to the parties themselves.
At a news conference in Ankara on her departure for Israel, the secretary also said the Bush administration has no plan for the early appointment of a special Middle East envoy, though she said the United States will actively support peace efforts.
"While we have no objection to a special envoy, in theory, we have to determine when that would be most helpful, if indeed at some point in time it is," she said. "So, I would not expect to have any announcements about a special envoy. But we are looking to how best to organize, not just the Department of State, but its relationship to the parties on the ground and to our missions there, so that we can be active partners."
Ms. Rice held a dinner meeting with Prime Minister Sharon late Sunday and will travel to the West Bank city of Ramallah, north of Jerusalem to meet Monday with Mr. Abbas and other Palestinian officials.
She said moves by Mr. Abbas to deploy troops in Gaza to deter rocket attacks against Israel, and to work with the Sharon government, could herald a return to the stalled Middle East peace Road Map.
While not being specific, she has spoken of an early meeting of the Middle East quartet, which drafted the Road Map, the United States, Russia, the European Union, and the United Nations.
She has also said she will attend a March first meeting in London, aimed at organizing international support for the Palestinian Authority as it seeks to lay groundwork for statehood.