Mon, Mar 26, 2007 - Page 6 News List

US mulls offering solution to conflict in Israel, Palestine

NEW APPROACH?State Department officials say the administration now realizes the US' hands-off policy has caused peace prospects to deteriorate


In making her fourth trip to the Middle East in four months to try to breathe life into dormant Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has opened the door to the possibility that the US might offer its own proposals to bridge the divide on some of the issues that have bedeviled the region since 1979.

"I don't rule out at some point that might be a useful thing to do," Rice told reporters in Washington before departing for Aswan, Egypt.

Of course, trying to impose a US-made solution on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has, for years, been the very thing that officials in the US President George W. Bush administration have steadfastly said they would not do.

But times have changed. The Iraq war has eroded support for the US in the Arab World. And many administration officials now believe that the only way the country can regain its standing among Arabs is if it is seen to be pushing for progress toward peace between Israelis and Palestinians and the eventual creation of a Palestinian state.

Several State Department officials say there is now an acknowledgment within the administration that the hands-off policy has caused prospects for peace to deteriorate.

"This is a place where if you leave things alone, they don't just stagnate," one administration official said. "They get worse."

Rice has been pushing for openings even as multiple doors have appeared to slam shut.

In the Bush administration's first term, Middle Eastern specialists said, the deal brokered by Saudi Arabia last month, in which moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas agreed to form a national unity government with the Islamist militant group Hamas, would have grounded all hopes for peace talks. Hamas is viewed as a terrorist organization by Israel and the US.

But Rice has pressed on anyway. While Israel has continued its boycott of the Palestinian government, the US has relented somewhat and agreed to talk to moderate members of the government, including Salam Fayyad, the Palestinian finance minister.

Rice is also prodding Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to start peace negotiations with Abbas and to negotiate with him separately from Hamas.

To get Palestinians to participate in the peace process, Rice has talked of late about a "political horizon," a diplomatic shorthand for the contours of a Palestinian state. Now Rice is pressing Arab countries to hold out a political horizon of their own that could give Israelis something to look forward to.

While in Egypt, Rice is expected to try to prod the US' Sunni allies to augment a 2002 Saudi peace proposal when the Arab League conducts its meeting in Riyadh this month.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who is conducting his own tour of the Middle East, will also be there.

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