In Mideast, Rice tests diplomatic waters

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice arrived in Israel Sunday, delivering Bush's two-state vision.

President Bush's assessment last week that Israeli-Palestinian peace is "within reach" is facing its first diplomatic test as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice engages leaders on both sides over how to build momentum for reconciliation during talks in Jerusalem and Ramallah.

Ms. Rice's two-day visit comes just before Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas are due to meet Tuesday in their first encounter since the death of Yasser Arafat in November. Adding to optimists' hopes that a new chapter may be beginning, those two leaders will be joined by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who is hosting the meeting in Sharm al-Sheikh, Egypt, and Jordan's King Abdallah.

But beneath the fanfare lie daunting differences both over short-term steps and longer-term goals that highlight the challenges facing US involvement, and at least in the Palestinian view, underscore the importance of heightening it.

"The need is for the United States to be more active, more involved, more visible and more committed," says Mahdi Abdul-Hadi, director of the Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs. The Israeli side, however, does not share that desire if it means pressure to move quickly back to negotiations in accordance with the international peace blueprint known as the road map, Israeli analysts say. The road map calls for the establishment of a viable Palestinian state alongside a secure Israel.

"In Israel, there is concern that an American mediator will press Israel to help [Abbas] beyond what Sharon is willing, and will weaken the Israeli stance," wrote Aluf Benn in Haaretz in an analysis headlined "Condi go home."

But Ms. Rice was upbeat Sunday night before beginning talks with Israeli foreign minister Silvan Shalom. "It is a time of optimism because fundamental changes are under way in the Middle East as a whole," she said. New leadership on the Palestinian side and Israel's decision to withdraw from Gaza and four settlements in the West Bank contribute to "the possibility to get back onto the road map and move toward President Bush's vision, which he articulated in June 2002, of two democratic states living side by side in peace."

On Saturday, Rice said that she prefers that the two parties make progress on their own, but that if peace efforts faltered or the US could clinch deals, Washington would be more active.

The need for such shoring up may come sooner rather than later, because the two sides disagree over the very meaning of restarting the peace process. For the Palestinians, such a revival means generous Israeli releases of prisoners among the 7,000 imprisoned Palestinians, steps to improve daily life including lifting movement strictures and a quick restart of negotiations on final status issues of Jerusalem, borders, settlements, and refugees.

In Israel's view, the stress should be on security issues, and the pace of moving to renewed political negotiations should be much slower than the Palestinians envision.

"We are not talking about peace now and not about the road map, but rather about phases that come before implementation of the road map," Mr. Sharon said last week during deliberations in advance of the summit. The road map's first phase calls for the Palestinians to dismantle militant groups and for Israel to freeze settlement construction.

Abbas recently took the unprecedented step of deploying forces in Gaza to thwart rocket attacks, but he has resisted calls for dismantling militant groups - as specified in the road map. Sharon's spokesman, Raanan Gissin, says Israel is losing patients. "Israel needs to see real commitment and steps to stop terrorist activity. This means arrests and confiscations of weapons. It has not been done," he says.

Alon Liel, former director-general of the Israeli Foreign Ministry, says the reason that the Sharon government is demanding Abbas crackdown harder is to "buy time" so that it will not have to enter substantive negotiations before the Gaza withdrawal.

"At this stage, the mere fact that there is almost no violence is a problem for Sharon, it means he has to start delivering on the political level to Abbas, and it is too early for him to do that," says Liel. "It has been so difficult for Sharon to get the approval of the Israeli political map for the disengagement, just imagine what would happen if additional parts of the West Bank, refugees, and Jerusalem were added to the equation. The entire disengagement might collapse."

But analysts say Abbas worries that unless the road map is revived before the Gaza withdrawal, that pullback will be the end of the story, with Israel consolidating its grip over the West Bank rather than relinquishing it, a scenario enunciated in October by Sharon adviser Dov Weisglass.

"Abbas needs to prove there is geographic unity of the Palestinian land and unity of the Palestinian people between Gaza and the West Bank," says Palestinian analyst Hani Masri. Moreover, Abbas is concerned Sharon will use the time to complete Israel's West Bank separation barrier and further expand settlements, foreclosing the possibility of a viable Palestinian state, Mr. Masri says.

Israel's dovish Peace Now movement last week released satellite photos showing that settlement outposts, which Israel is supposed to evacuate under the road map, have grown into permanent settlements. "Our very obvious conclusion is that Sharon is disengaging from Gaza in order to fortify and strengthen settlement in the West Bank," said Peace Now staffer Dror Etkes.

Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev took issue with the criticism. "Sharon is the first prime minister to speak of a Palestinian state on the West Bank and he has told the public that painful compromises will be needed for peace," he says.

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