Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is warning Arab politics could become more radical unless the current window of opportunity for Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking is fully exploited. At a congressional committee hearing, Rice also said the Bush administration remains committed to diplomacy in dealing with Iran's nuclear program. VOA's David Gollust reports from the State Department.
Secretary Rice defended the administration's effort to convene a Middle East peace conference as early as next month in the face of skeptical questioning from members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
Democratic committee chairman Tom Lantos said the plan may be premature, given the political weakness of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, and the fact that Palestinian Hamas radicals control Gaza.
Lantos also raised the idea Rice might be driven by concern about her legacy as chief U.S. diplomat in an administration that will otherwise be remembered for the conflict in Iraq.
"How do you answer the skeptics who feel that it is an attempt by the administration to embellish its record, you have about 14 months left in this administration, and you are reaching out for the Israeli-Palestinian issue as one faint hope to leave a positive diplomatic record for this administration, that the timing is inappropriate, that the move to convene the conference is ill-advised," asked Lantos.
Rice countered that the political situation in the region is far different from the last big U.S. push for a settlement at the end of the Clinton administration, and that a major change is the growing degree of Iranian influence in the area with groups like Hamas.
She said the timing of the U.S. effort is propelled by the need to give moderate forces in the Middle East a boost and to deal a blow to extremists:
"Our concern is growing that without a serious political prospect for the Palestinians that gives to moderate leaders a horizon that they can show to their people that indeed there is a two-state solution that is possible, we will lose the window for a two-state solution, that you will see the further radicalization of Palestinian politics, of politics in the region," Rice said.
Rice said the conference, to be held in Annapolis, Maryland near Washington, will occur before the end of the year, but said she has yet to issue invitations to potential participants.
She expressed agreement with committee members that key Arab moderates like Egypt and Saudi Arabia need to participate. She said a Palestinian leader, no matter how politically strong, cannot make the compromises necessary for peace without strong Arab support.
In more than two hours of testimony, Rice also stressed the United States' continued reliance on political means to resolve the Iran nuclear issue, amid recent tough rhetoric from Vice President Dick Cheney, who said flatly earlier this week Iran will not be allowed to acquire nuclear weapons.
In response to questioning from Democratic committee member Sheila Jackson-Lee, who called the Cheney remarks dangerous, Rice said the entire Bush administration including the vice president, believes in pursuing a diplomatic course.
"The key is that the Iranians do have to know that the international community is going to be tough, to prevent an unpalatable decision later on about an Iran armed with a nuclear weapon," she said. "And when we say consequences, we do mean that we also - while the president does not take any options off the table - we do have economic ways that we can go after this, and we are doing precisely that."
Rice said Iranian policies, on the nuclear issue, in Iraq and elsewhere, constitute perhaps the single greatest challenge to U.S. security interests worldwide.
At the same time, she said Iran is vulnerable to concerted international pressure.
She said the fact that the latest U.N. Security Council-sanctions resolution against Iran was approved unanimously stunned the Iranian leadership, and touched off an internal policy debate in Tehran that the United States would like to see continue.