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Rice: Support for Peace Wide in Israel

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Thursday she believes Israeli support for peace with the Palestinians is broad-based despite the potential departure from politics of the gravely ill Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. She also says the United States wants to see Palestinian elections go forward as planned this month.

Ms. Rice says Americans are praying for Prime Minister Sharon's full recovery from the massive stroke he suffered Wednesday. But she is also expressing confidence that the Israeli people will remain committed to Middle East peace efforts, even if the Prime Minister, the main force behind Israel's withdrawal from Gaza, was no longer on the scene.

Ms. Rice's remarks, in a breakfast talk with State Department reporters, were the most extensive by a senior Bush administration official since word of Mr. Sharon's latest health crisis.

The Secretary hailed the Israeli Prime Minister as a man of courage with a vision of peace based not only on a bedrock commitment to Israeli security, but also a realization that this security has to include a better future for Palestinians.

Ms. Rice made no reference to news reports that Mr. Sharon's stroke may end his political career and said the U.S. focus, appropriately, is on his recovery, but she made clear her view that Israeli support for policies Mr. Sharon has put in motion is broad based. "That's our focus and it's going to remain our focus," she said. "I do believe that the desire for peace, the desire for a stable relationship between Israel and the Palestinians is one that runs wide and deep in the Israeli society."

Ms. Rice said the Bush administration remains engaged with the Palestinians and that the new U.S. coordinator for Gaza, Army Major General Keith Dayton, is returning to the area this week to pursue reforms of the Palestinian security forces.

Security problems, mainly in Gaza, have cast a shadow over plans for Palestinian legislative elections set for January 25. But Ms. Rice said the vote should be held as planned, despite prospects it could bring gains for the Islamic Hamas movement, listed by the United States as a terrorist group, at the expense of the mainstream Fatah movement.

"I don't really believe we can favor postponing elections because we fear an outcome," she added. "I think that's not appropriate. The Palestinian authority needs to do everything that it can, Fatah needs to do everything that it can, to demonstrate to Palestinian people that life under a freely-elected Palestinian legislative council that would then work with the president that has been elected there, that life will be better, life would be more secure."

Ms. Rice said the United States' position on Hamas has not changed, but that its role in politics is an internal matter for the Palestinians.

At the same time, she pointed to a statement on the Palestinian elections last week by the United States and its partners in the Middle East Quartet, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations.

In the statement, the four sponsors of the road map to Middle East peace said all participants in the political process should renounce violence, disarm, and recognize Israel's right to exist.

The Quartet also said any Palestinian cabinet chosen on the basis of the election should exclude members who have not unequivocally renounced violence and terrorism.