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Rice to Visit Middle East Next Week


Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visits the Middle East next week to explore possible ways to restart Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts. It will be her first visit to the region since the Lebanon conflict in July.

Secretary Rice heard from many fellow foreign ministers at the United Nations last week that reviving the Israeli-Palestinian peace process is fundamental to easing broader tensions in the region.

But the job will hardly be easy, with some Israeli troops still in Lebanon and the Palestinians failing to come up with a unity government that will meet international terms for peace talks.

Accordingly, officials here are making clear that expectations for the Rice mission are limited. Announcing the trip, State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack said the Secretary, as tasked by President Bush in his U.N. speech last week, will be sounding out moderate regional leaders about a possible way forward:

"The task from the President was to consult and to see what the possibilities are," said Sean McCormack. "And that is how I would frame this trip. This is a trip about consultation, continuing discussions, to see what the possibilities are. So this is a trip designed to lay the foundations, potentially, for moving the process forward. There aren't any guarantees in that regard."

McCormack noted the positive tone of a special U.N. Security Council meeting last Thursday on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in which Secretary Rice took part. Israel attended the meeting, which was called by the Arab League and was notably free of harsh rhetoric.

A day earlier, Rice also joined in a ministerial level meeting of the international Middle East "Quartet" - the United States, European Union, Russia and the United Nations.

The four partners welcomed efforts by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to form a unity government with the militant Hamas movement that would recognize Israel's right to exist and renounce terror, and thus open the way to renewed outside aid for the Palestinian Authority.

The Palestinian dialogue has since stalled, and it is unclear whether Rice will be able to hold a joint meeting with Mr. Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert while in the region.

The Secretary of State is to leave Washington Sunday on the trip, which will take her to Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Israel, and to Ramallah in the West Bank where Mr. Abbas has his offices.

Officials do not rule out additional stops on the trip, which is due to end on Friday of next week.