US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice returned to the Middle East yesterday in a bid to breathe new air into the sluggish peace process ahead of a visit by US President George W. Bush.
On her 15th visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories in under two years, Rice was expected to push the sides to stick to their goal of clinching a peace deal by the end of this year.
The talks will be held alongside Egyptian-led efforts to broker a truce between Israel and Gaza militants that would ease an Israeli blockade on the Hamas-ruled territory, which has been sidelined in the current peace talks.
The top US diplomat was to dine with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in Jerusalem upon her arrival in Israel yesterday evening and meet Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas in the West Bank town of Ramallah today.
She will then host a three-way meeting with top peace negotiators Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and former Palestinian prime minister Ahmed Qorei, who have been holding closed-door talks for several months.
“Israelis have waited too long for the security they desire and they deserve. Palestinians quite frankly have waited too long for the dignity of an independent state,” Rice said in Washington on Tuesday.
She said that the US “unwavering” support for Israel should give it the courage to make “difficult and painful compromises.”
A senior Israeli official said that Rice might seek a public Israeli-Palestinian document outlining the progress made so far in their peace talks.
“But there is little chance of seeing such a document since both sides wish to keep the talks secret until an agreement is reached on all issues,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Efforts to advance the peace talks have been mired by violence in Gaza and Israel’s continued settlement expansion in the occupied West Bank and east Jerusalem, which Palestinians wish to make the capital of their future state.
The Mideast Quartet on Friday called on Israel to halt all settlement expansion, a measure to which it committed itself under the 2003 roadmap peace blueprint.
Bush, who hosted a conference that formally restarted Middle East peace negotiations in November after a seven-year freeze, will visit Israel, Saudi Arabia and Egypt from May 13 to May 18.
Last week, he said that achieving peace was an uphill task, but was confident a deal could be clinched before his term ends.