Rice Presses Arab States on Peace Plan

By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 25, 2007

ASWAN, Egypt, March 24 -- Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice pressed Arab officials on Saturday to follow up a peace offering to Israel with sustained diplomacy. At the same time, she encountered a backlash from Egypt's government over her criticism of constitutional amendments that are being put to a referendum Monday.

Rice's meetings in this historic southern city on the Nile highlighted the challenges she faces as she tries to reinvigorate the Middle East peace process while maintaining at least a rhetorical commitment to pushing for democracy in the region. Egypt, the largest Arab country and one of the few that recognizes Israel, plays a central role in peace efforts. Rice has come under fire in recent months for appearing to remain silent as President Hosni Mubarak rolled back electoral freedoms.

Rice, however, slammed the planned referendum shortly before she boarded her plane Friday for the trip here. Speaking to reporters, she said the proposed constitutional amendments -- which human rights groups such as Freedom House and Amnesty International say will limit opposition parties, suspend judicial supervision of elections and enshrine sweeping police powers -- were "a really disappointing outcome." Opposition groups have vowed to boycott the vote, which was set just one week after Egypt's parliament gave preliminary approval to the constitutional changes.

"The Egyptians set certain expectations themselves about what this referendum would achieve and the hope that this would be a process that gave voice to all Egyptians," Rice said. "I think there's some danger that that hope is not going to be met."

Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit angrily dismissed Rice's comments as "interference," shortly before he was to join her in the talks here Saturday on Israel and the Palestinians.

"It is unimaginable that someone would speak about and judge an Egyptian internal political process before it even starts," Aboul Gheit said. "Even if Egypt and the United States have a friendly, strategic relationship, Egypt can't accept interference in its affairs from any of its friends."

In a nationally televised speech Saturday, President Mubarak also rejected the criticism, saying his government would not bend to outside "pressure, dictation or prerequisites."

Rice, whose signature speech as secretary of state was a plea for greater democracy given in Cairo in 2005, will meet with Mubarak here Sunday and also hold a joint news conference with Aboul Gheit. The Egyptian foreign minister was part of discussions Rice held with Arab officials on the Arab-Israeli conflict, but Rice aides said the referendum was not mentioned Saturday. Rice said she plans to question Mubarak about the referendum when they meet.

"As the Middle East moves toward greater openness and greater pluralism and greater democratization," Rice said Friday, "Egypt ought to be in the lead in that. It is disappointing that this has not happened."

Rice's meeting with the foreign ministers of Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates -- known as the Arab Quartet -- came just a few days before the Arab League plans to gather in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, to reaffirm a peace offer made to Israel in 2002. The Arab initiative is a key part of Rice's plan to reinvigorate the peace process, because she believes it is a vehicle to involve Israel's Arab neighbors more closely in the effort.

Rice "emphasized the importance of Arab-Israeli reconciliation as an element in broadening peace but also to help establish a track between the Israelis and Palestinians," Assistant Secretary of State C. David Welch told reporters after Rice met with the ministers. Rice also met separately with intelligence chiefs from the four countries and then had dinner with both the diplomats and the spy chiefs.

Rice has insisted that she is not trying to urge the Arabs to alter their peace offer -- which includes elements that Israel finds abhorrent, such as allowing Palestinian refugees to settle in Israel -- but has said she would like the Arabs to provide "active follow-up to the initiative," making it part of the peace process.

Welch added that the ministers had a "good, friendly and sometimes lively exchange" about the creation of a unity Palestinian government that includes members of the militant Hamas movement. Arab countries have urged Western countries to loosen an arms embargo against the Palestinian government, now that it includes Hamas and more moderate members.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company