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Rice Prepares for New Middle East Trip

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice says she will begin another trip to the Middle East late next week aimed at spurring Israeli-Palestinian dialogue. Rice held talks late Wednesday with visiting Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni. VOA's David Gollust reports from the State Department.

Rice is not likely on her next trip to convene a three-way meeting with Israeli and Palestinian leaders. But she is expected to meet top officials on both sides, and with moderate Arab leaders, in the region to try to further clear the way for a resumption of the regional peace process.

Rice, who had just returned from accompanying President Bush on his Latin American trip, announced her Mideast travel plans at a press appearance with Israeli Foreign Minister Livni, who was concluding a private Washington visit.

Rice's meeting with her Israeli counterpart was preceded by press accounts of new interest by the U.S. and Israel in the 2002 Saudi Middle East peace plan, which basically offered Israel normal relations with the Arab world in return for a full withdrawal from territories occupied in 1967.

But under questioning, both appeared to downplay the notion that the Saudi plan might replace the peace road map of the international Middle East Quartet - the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations -- as the guide for regional peace efforts.

Rice said the plan by the then-Crown Prince Abdullah - now the Saudi king - was a commendable initiative but not basis for negotiations:

"The Arab initiative is not a negotiating document. It is a document that sets forward a position. And as I said I think very favorably about the idea the Arab League - starting as the Crown Prince initiative - would as a whole set forward a position on which perhaps reconciliation could take place between Israel and the Arab states. But obviously it is not a negotiating position, and I'm sure that Israel would have its own views of how that reconciliation could take place," she said.

Foreign Minister Livni, for her part, said the Saudi initiative as initially published was very positive, given that it was predicated on a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

But she said as later adopted by the Arab league in Beirut, it contained language on refugees that would threaten Israel's existence as a Jewish state.

She said prospects for peace with the Palestinians would be enhanced if Arab states did not wait until the end of the peace process to normalize ties with Israel:

"I would like to see Arab leaders, pragmatic, normalize their relations with Israel without waiting for the peace between Israel and the Palestinians to be completed. Maybe if they will take these kinds of steps, that can help the moderates in the Palestinian Authority to take other steps in order to achieve peace. So this is something that we're waiting for," she said.

Aides to Rice gave no details of Rice's travel plans but Egyptian officials have already said they expect a visit from the Secretary on the upcoming trip.

Rice hosted a joint meeting in Jerusalem with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority chief Mahmoud Abbas February 19th, which was billed as the first discussion in more than six years of final-status issues in the peace process.

The Israeli Prime Minister and Mr. Abbas followed up that meeting with bilateral talks last Saturday.

But efforts to re-start a formal peace process have been thwarted by the Palestinian power-sharing deal between Mr. Abbas' mainstream Fatah party and the radical Islamist Hamas movement, which the United States considers a terrorist organization.