US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will try to shore up a fragile Israeli-Palestinian ceasefire this week while courting moderate Arab allies in an increasingly urgent bid to stabilize Iraq.
Rice is scheduled to meet with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas today in the West Bank oasis town of Jericho amid signs that moves towards the creation of an independent Palestinian state could be gathering steam after a six-year hiatus.
In a break with recent diplomatic tradition, there will not be a parallel meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, a senior US official said, citing scheduling difficulties and the fact that Olmert held talks with Rice and US President George W. Bush in Washington last month.
Rice will then meet at a nearby Jordanian Dead Sea resort with foreign ministers from six Gulf states, Jordan and Egypt -- governments that have repeatedly warned Washington the Israeli-Palestinian deadlock is fueling Arab anger and strengthening Islamic radicals across the region, including in Iraq.
The Dead Sea talks will take place on the sidelines of a US-backed conference, the Forum for the Future, aimed at promoting democracy in the broader Middle East, from Mauritania to Pakistan.
The US views support from Arab moderates as key to countering the growing influence of Iran and Syria over militants who are foiling US policy efforts in Iraq, Lebanon and the Palestinian areas.
The Bush administration is under intense pressure to overhaul its strategy in the region amid a dramatic worsening of violence in Iraq, where insurgent attacks on US forces and sectarian violence between minority Sunni and majority Shiite Muslims are spiraling out of control.
Bush and Rice were to discuss options for dealing with the Iraq crisis yesterday and today in the Jordanian capital with Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and Jordan's King Abdullah II.
Abdullah took the lead this week in warning Bush that resolving the Palestinian issue was the key to tackling instability across the region.
"Palestinians and Israelis must return to the negotiating table in order to guarantee security and stability for the people of the region," he said on Tuesday.
Abbas, leader of the moderate Fatah party, is reportedly nearing a power-sharing deal with the radical Islamic group Hamas, whose victory in legislative elections early this year sparked a devastating Western aid boycott of the Palestinian government.
Abbas has vowed that the "national unity" government expected to emerge from the negotiations will meet conditions laid down by Israel and international mediators for an end to the aid boycott and a resumption of talks on the creation of a Palestinian state.
Israelis and Palestinians at the weekend meanwhile agreed to observe a ceasefire in the Gaza Strip following five months of violence.
In a speech on Monday, Olmert offered to resume immediate talks and take other peacemaking steps if the truce holds and Abbas succeeds in creating a new government.
The steps would include unfreezing millions of dollars in Palestinian tax revenues, releasing jailed Palestinian leaders in exchange for an Israeli soldier kidnapped by Gaza militants in June and easing travel restrictions.
Olmert in the speech also held out the prospect of Israel withdrawing from most of the West Bank as part of a final peace accord creating a Palestinian state.