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Prodding Parties to Make Own Peace, Rice Makes Clear U.S. Will Play a Role

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice came vowing a light American touch in the latest round of peacemaking, but left no one in doubt that Washington will be pushing Israel and the Palestinians toward rapprochement. “This is a time of opportunity and it is a time that we must seize,” Rice said Sunday at the start of her first Middle East tour as President Bush’s top foreign policy official.

The secretary of state will be conspicuously absent from this week’s summit between Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

Yet in a two-day round of meetings, Rice appeared to be setting the tone for the talks, which some hope could break a more than four-year diplomatic deadlock.

“This is a hopeful time, but this also is a time of great responsibility for all of us to make certain that we act on the words that we speak,” she said after meeting Sharon, referring to obligations Israel and the Palestinian Authority undertook as part of the U.S.-led “road map” for Middle East peace.

In an apparent nod to critics who have accused the Bush administration of guiding the peace process unilaterally, Rice said Israel and the Palestinians should work free of mediation.

“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 told reporters in Turkey before setting off for Tel Aviv.

In a BBC interview, Rice voiced reservations about Israel’s West Bank security barrier, saying that it “prejudges the final-status borderlines” on land Palestinians want for a future state.

But she was firmer still in pushing Bush’s call for an end to terrorism and incitement against Israel — not just by the Palestinians, but also by their champions in the Arab world.

“Israel deserves to live in peace in the Middle East and the Jewish people deserve the respect of their neighbors,” Rice said.

“We have been very clear that incitement cannot be ignored, that it is not possible simultaneously to say that you want a peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians that is lasting, and at the same time ignore some of the most horrific caricatures of Israelis or anti-Semitism in any form,” she said.

This appeared to be a clear message to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, the host of Tuesday’s summit between Sharon and Abbas, and to the Egyptian media, which often is charged with incitement against Israel.

Egypt currently is the site of unilateral cease-fire talks between Hamas and Islamic Jihad, whom Abbas has failed to dismantle as required by the road map, preferring to win over the terrorist groups through negotiation.

Israel, for its part, already has scaled back its military operations in the West Bank and Gaza Strip as a gesture of goodwill to Abbas, and the Bush administration apparently is content with this entente for the time being.

Indeed, for now, all sides appear ready to settle for any means of pulling off Sharon’s plan to withdraw Israeli troops and settlers from Gaza this summer with minimum casualties.

Rice, who is to meet Abbas on Monday, made do with urging the Palestinian leader to mount “an effective fight against terrorism” and praised him for showing “desire for a peaceful future with Israel.”

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