Rice Plans to Conduct 'Parallel' Mideast Talks

By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 26, 2007

RAMALLAH, West Bank, March 25 -- Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice shuttled between Palestinian and Israeli officials Sunday, seeking to lay the groundwork for a diplomatic initiative in which she will conduct "parallel" discussions with both parties on the contours of a Palestinian state.

The new plan, which Rice is expected to formally announce Monday in Jerusalem, represents a step back from her earlier ambition of bringing the Palestinian and Israeli leaders together to sketch what she called the "political horizon." That approach fell apart after Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas struck an accord with the militant group Hamas in February to form a unity government.

Rice acknowledged Sunday that she spent most of her time in the three-way meeting she arranged last month simply dealing with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's anger at Abbas for making the deal.

"Now we are in a situation in which I think a bilateral approach, in which I talk in parallel to the parties from a common approach, is the best way," Rice told reporters at a joint news conference with Abbas after their meetings. "We'll use many different geometries, I'm sure, as we go through this process."

Rice, making her fourth trip here in four months at a time of great weakness in both governments, said she would be highly flexible and consider a wide variety of formats and tactics, including appointing a special envoy to help shoulder the burden.

"My approach has been, I admit, careful. It's been step by step," Rice told reporters traveling with her. "I have not been willing to try for the Big Bang. I don't think that's where we are. . . . The question here isn't speed."

Rice said that one advantage of having the two sides talk to her first is that they can lay out their positions to her, without committing to a negotiating stance that would be difficult to change. She said the three-way meeting last month allowed for only "very tentative, initial discussions about the future."

Middle East experts -- and many Arab officials -- have criticized the Bush administration for failing to devote sustained attention to the Palestinian conflict during the president's first six years in office. Rice's recent efforts have been viewed skeptically in the region, with some speculating that they are only a ruse to win Arab support for the struggling Iraqi government and in a confrontation with Iran.

Rice emphasized several times that she has President Bush's full support for investing time and effort, noting that she has had "endless conversations and discussions" with him in formulating this strategy.

Rice also plans to press Arab countries to find ways to open up contact with Israel on their own peace plan, which offers the prospect of recognition of the Jewish state. Rice said that process should also take place in parallel, and not wait for the creation of a Palestinian state. But at a press briefing with Rice in Aswan, Egypt, on Sunday morning, Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit said the first step was up to the Israelis. "We need to hear from the Israeli side, then we launch the negotiations," he said.

Rice, whose motorcade passed U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon's motorcade on the road to Ramallah, has revealed few details about her new initiative. She also did not share them with Abbas before she went to Jerusalem to have dinner with Olmert, according to Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator. But after discussions with Olmert and presumably receiving approval from the Israelis, Rice will meet again with Abbas on Monday in Amman, Jordan.

"Right now she's a go-between," Erekat said. "For the time, there will be no more trilateral talks. But in the future, there might be."

Although Rice has said she would not rule out offering her own proposals at some point, she rejected suggestions that she is simply retracing steps taken by former president Bill Clinton before he left office in 2001. At the time, Clinton produced a detailed plan for a Palestinian state, developed after months of discussions with both sides. Many experts say the boundaries of an eventual state and settlement of key issues probably will look similar to what are known as the Clinton parameters.

"I know that everyone thinks, 'Oh, we know what the issues are,' " Rice said. "I actually don't think we do. . . . If we all know what this looks like, why haven't we been able to get there?"

Correspondent Scott Wilson in Jerusalem contributed to this report.

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