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Rice dives into middle east peacemaking
Updated: 2005-02-06 21:48

TEL AVIV - Condoleezza Rice began her first visit as secretary of state to the heart of the Middle East conflict on Sunday with Israelis and Palestinians already set on a new course of dialogue after four years of violence.

Flying into Israel from Turkey, she planned to hold talks later in the day with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in Jerusalem and on Monday with new Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank.

Both sides will hold a summit in Egypt on Tuesday on reviving a U.S.-backed peace "road map," making the mission of Washington's top diplomat less of an arm-twisting exercise and more of an affirmation of change after Yasser Arafat's death.

Criticized for too little involvement in Middle East peace efforts in his first term, President Bush sent Rice to the region to back up his pledge to press harder for an end to the conflict.

But she will not attend the summit in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh and signaled she preferred to see Sharon and Abbas make progress as free of foreign mediation as possible.

"I hope we would all get into a mind-set that says if the parties are able to continue to move on their own, that's the very best outcome," Rice, on an eight-day tour of Europe and the Middle East, told reporters en route to Ankara, the stop before Tel Aviv.

Abbas's election last month to succeed Arafat, viewed by the United States and Israel as an obstacle to peace, has stirred international optimism, and Rice pledged to discuss ways for the sides to coordinate security and defuse crises.


One crisis was averted on Sunday when negotiators hammering out terms for the summit agreed to defer a decision on how many Palestinian prisoners Israel will release as a goodwill gesture.

Under the deal, a joint Israeli-Palestinian committee will review the release roster after Tuesday's talks in what a Palestinian official called "a positive step forward."

Israel had disappointed the Palestinian leadership by refusing to include those jailed for deadly attacks among the 900 prisoners it intends to free.

Abbas is under enormous domestic pressure to secure freedom for 8,000 prisoners, among the most emotive issues for ordinary Palestinians, many of whom have relatives in Israeli jails.

Political analysts differ over how much the United States should intensify a brokering role largely dormant under Bush, although he championed the "road map" charting steps toward a Palestinian state alongside a secure Israel.

Rice signaled Washington would seek to steer a middle course, mainly leaving the parties to make their own peace moves but jumping in if they faltered or needed help to clinch deals.

"The United States wants very much for this to be a process that is the parties' process, that is owned by the parties, by the regional states," Rice said. "When our involvement needs to take on a different character then we will do precisely that."

Rice's predecessor Colin Powell made only infrequent visits to the Middle East.

Palestinians are wary of U.S. involvement because of what they see as Bush's pro-Israeli stance in his first term when he backed Sharon's intention -- as part of any future peace accord -- to keep some lands captured in the 1967 Middle East war.

Still, Bush has sought to bolster Abbas and on Wednesday announced $350 million in aid for the Palestinians. While it is a fraction of the $3 billion U.S. assistance Israel receives each year, the package was a big aid boost.

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