By ANNE GEARAN
The Associated Press
Thursday, September 28, 2006; 6:11 PM
WASHINGTON -- Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice returns to the Middle East next week for diplomatic meetings with Arab allies and Israel to test the waters for possible new moves toward peace.
Rice will travel to Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Israel and the West Bank to consult with leaders "who have a vision for a more moderate, peaceful, democratic, stable and prosperous Middle East," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said Thursday.
In addition to the Israel-Palestinian dispute, McCormack said Rice will seek to move her democracy agenda forward and discuss threats to stability and moderation in the region, including Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah.
Rice will hold the Bush administration's third meeting in two weeks with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, the embattled secular leader whom President Bush last week called a "man of courage" for trying to revive Mideast peace talks despite a continued political stalemate with Hamas militants.
The top U.S. diplomat hopes to revive and expand agreements allowing transfer of goods and freer movement for Palestinians in and out of their separate territories in Gaza and the West Bank. The territories on opposite flanks of Israel would form an independent Palestinian state under a U.S.-backed plan for long-term peace.
Israel wants to reopen dialogue with Abbas and work with him to establish a Palestinian state. But Abbas has been in a weakened position since January when Hamas, which seeks the destruction of Israel, won the Palestinian elections.
Abbas retains his position as president but is caught between Hamas and the West, which considers Hamas a terrorist group and refuses to underwrite it with vital international aid. Abbas has tried to persuade Hamas leaders to moderate their anti-Israel policies and join with his Fatah Party in a coalition government, but the U.S. and Israel are leery of the plan.
Prospects for a return to active peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians have looked dim this year, partly because the political upheaval in both governments kept leaders' attention focused inward.
Israel has new leadership following Ariel Sharon's sudden massive stroke. The new prime minister, Ehud Olmert, is on the defensive at home because of widespread dissatisfaction with the conduct and outcome of Israel's summer war with Hezbollah militants in Lebanon.
Arab nations, including the few moderate states that are key to U.S. goals in Iraq, Iran and Lebanon, view improving the Palestinians' lot as essential. The festering grievances of the stateless Palestinians feed unrest and radicalism elsewhere.
Hamas has given no sign that it will meet international demands that would resolve the stalemate with Abbas and allow aid to flow: Renounce violence, recognize Israel and abide by agreements made by the previous secular Palestinian leadership.
It is Rice's first trip to the Middle East since a U.N.-brokered cease-fire stopped Israel's one-month war with Hezbollah militants in southern Lebanon. Rice took heavy criticism during her last visit, in late July and early August, for U.S. unwillingness to move for a quicker end to the fighting.