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Rice Puts Off Mideast Talks Due to Israeli Political Upheaval

The State Department has confirmed that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is postponing a set of talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders originally planned for next week, because of political turmoil in Israel. Rice had intended to link the Middle East visit with a trip she is making to Moscow. VOA's David Gollust reports from the State Department.

Secretary of State Rice has made three trips to Israel and the Palestinian areas this year as part of a stepped-up U.S. effort to revive the regional peace process.

But State Department officials are confirming news reports from the region that she is putting off a fourth visit that had been planned for next week, because of the political controversy surrounding Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

The Israeli leader has faced calls for his resignation after an investigative panel late last month accused his government of multiple failures in its conduct of the war last year with Lebanese Hezbollah fighters.

State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack said the travel decision was made because of the complexity of Israeli politics in the near term.

But he said it in no way means a lessening of the U.S. determination to help the parties move forward, and he said the Rice trip that begins in Moscow next week could still include a Middle East stop.

"There is obviously a lot of politics in Israel that they are working through at this point," he said. "But we are going to continue our efforts to advance the Israeli-Palestinian track. And if she does make a stop in the Middle East, I would look for her to focus on ways in which we might do that, though not necessarily stopping in Israel and the Palestinian areas."

McCormack did not elaborate on Rice's travel possibilities. But officials say she might meet at a regional venue with some Arab counterparts and members of the international Middle East quartet, which includes along with the United States, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations.

Last week, the United States conveyed to Israel and the Palestinian Authority a list of confidence-building steps it would like to see each side take in the coming weeks to improve the climate for peace efforts.

What the State Department describes as benchmarks include a call for the Palestinian side to develop a plan by late June to stop Gaza militants from firing rockets into Israel.

Israel meantime is being asked to ease West Bank travel restrictions in phases, and to allow Palestinian bus travel between the West Bank and Gaza in keeping with a crossings deal Rice negotiated in late 2005 that has gone largely unfulfilled.

Israeli officials have expressed doubt the Palestinians will meet their obligations under the U.S. document, and have objected to removing certain West Bank roadblocks.

Under questioning, Spokesman McCormack said the U.S. document was not intended as a non-negotiable set of demands, but rather a starting point for improving the political climate between the sides.

The Middle East situation will also figure in Rice's talks in Moscow next Monday and Tuesday, her first visit to the Russian capital since last October.

The secretary of state is expected to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, among others.

The agenda also includes Kosovo, the Iran nuclear issue, and Russian objections to a U.S. plan for a missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic to counter a potential Iranian missile threat.