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Rice Returning to Mideast to Meet Israelis, Palestinians

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice leaves Washington Tuesday for another round of talks with Palestinian and Israeli leaders, leading up to a U.S.-hosted regional conference planned for November. A senior Rice aide says it is a very important moment for efforts to revive the Middle East peace process. VOA's David Gollust reports from the State Department.

It will be Rice's sixth trip to the Middle East this year, and officials here say there could be two or three more such forays to lay groundwork for the November conference.

With U.S. encouragement, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas have had a series of meetings intended to sketch an outline of what a two-state solution to the Middle East conflict will look like.

Bush administration officials hope enough progress can be made on the so-called political horizon so that the November gathering - at a date and venue still to be announced -- can attract moderate Arab states and be a catalyst for full-scale peace negotiations.

In a talk with reporters, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Welch said he is cautiously optimistic about prospects for the U.S. initiative.

"This is a very important moment and we think we can make some progress here. You all know that my briefing style is to be very spare when it comes to words like encouragement. I try to be direct and objective. And I think for the first time here, in quite some time, I really do feel there is an opportunity," he said.

Rice has pressed ahead with Middle East diplomacy despite the violent split in Palestinian ranks earlier this year that left the militant Islamic movement Hamas in control of Gaza.

The Bush administration is funneling security aid and other assistance into the West Bank to bolster the relatively-moderate Palestinian Authority chief of the mainstream Fatah movement.

Welch, in his briefing here, was unapologetic about the effort to proceed without Hamas, which won Palestinian elections last year but was boycotted by the United States and other major powers because of its refusal to accept Israel's right to exist.

"Hamas excluded itself from what is the commonly accepted basis for the peace process - to accept the right of the other to live in peace, free from terror and violence, and you accept that there are agreements out there that have been forged by previous governments. We don't see what's so unreasonable about that," he said.

Rice is expected to meet Israeli officials in Jerusalem Wednesday and confer Thursday with Palestinian leaders in the nearby West Bank city of Ramallah.

A spokesman for the Secretary said she might have a three-way meeting with the two leaders, but that plans were not been set.

Mr. Abbas and Prime Minister Olmert have had amiable talks in recent weeks but differ on what the dialogue should achieve.

The Palestinian side wants a framework agreement on the core issues of the dispute including refugees and Jerusalem, while Mr. Olmert says he will commit only to a non-binding statement of intent.

Assistant Secretary Welch said he expects the sides to eventually put their understandings in writing, though he refused to say what form that should take.

Saudi Arabia, whose participation in the November meeting is considered of key importance, has said it will not attend unless the two parties can produce a substantive document.