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Rice Fanfares 'Mutual Opportunities' in Mideast Peace
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US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice Thursday wrapped up her about 24-hour trip to Israel and the Palestinian territories, ending the mission, as what she had put, to take advantage of "mutual opportunities" to advance the two-state solution.

Despite the much fanfare and the newly-coined phrase, some former diplomats and analysts in Israel were basically doubtful over the prospect of any significant progress in the Middle East peace process.

Urging peace talks to seize "mutual opportunities"

Earlier on Thursday, Rice traveled to Ramallah and met with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and the entire Palestinian caretaker cabinet, led by the US-backed prime minister Salam Fayyad.

It was the first time for Rice to visit the West Bank since Islamic Hamas movement seized control of the Gaza Strip and captured pro-Abbas security headquarters last month.

At a press conference with Abbas, Rice called for more and deepening dialogues between the Palestinians and Israel "on all of the issues that will lead ultimately to the founding of a Palestinian state."

She also told Abbas that Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was "ready to discuss the fundamental issues that will lead to negotiations soon," referring to the thorniest issues of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, including the status of Jerusalem and the Palestinian borders.

Earlier on Wednesday, Rice had said her visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories were aimed to "take advantage of mutual opportunities to advance the two-state solution."

"This is a time to seize opportunities and it is a time to proceed in a prepared and careful way, as one does not want to miss opportunities ... we have to take advantage of what is before us," Rice told reporters after a meeting with her Israeli counterpart Tzipi Livni.

Livni echoed her appeal by saying that Israel would not miss the opportunity to continue negotiations with the Palestinians.

In response to Rice's efforts, both Israel and the Palestinians had made positive gestures by announcing that they would consider first working on "principles" as the initial move toward a final peace settlement.

These "principles" would outline the contours of a future Palestinian state, without immediately tackling those thorniest issues.

Rice, who arrived in Israel on Wednesday noon, had previously visited Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Her four-day regional tour was aimed partly to rally support for an American proposal to hold an international peace conference to push ahead with the Middle East peace process.

On July 16, US President George W. Bush proposed to hold an international conference later this year that will group Israel, the Palestinians and some neighboring Arab states to help resume the stalled Middle East peace talks.

To US relief, Rice had largely persuaded Saudi Arabia, a heavyweight in the Arab world without diplomatic ties with Israel, to participate in the proposed peace conference.

"When we get an invitation from (Rice) to attend ... we will study it and we will be keen to attend," Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal said after Wednesday's meetings with Rice and US Defense Secretary Robert Gates in Riyadh.

Skepticism lingering among Israeli experts, former diplomats

Despite the latest US efforts in pushing forward with the Mideast peace process, including the rare US duo visit, Israeli foreign policy experts maintained basically skeptical.

They said that formidable challenges remained in the way to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the current US administration would have a limited impact on the Middle East peace process.

"The critical question is whether Israel and the Palestinian (National) Authority are in a position to have meaningful negotiations on issues of permanent status," former Israeli ambassador to the UN Dore Gold told the Jerusalem Post.

"The hardest problem that the US will face is the weakness of Abbas in the West Bank, an issue that probably cannot be ameliorated by money and guns alone," Gold said.

He believed that a significant amount of time needed to be spent on building institutions and civil society among the Palestinians before the West could burden them with negotiations.

Alon Liel, former director-general of the Israeli Foreign Ministry and foreign affairs adviser to former prime minister Ehud Barak, is also skeptical about the prospects for any progress in the Middle East peace process.

Liel's critique related to the US and Israeli attitudes to the changing Palestinian polity, and the determination to focus on Abbas while trying to maintain the boycott of Hamas.

"By doing so, and declaring half of the Palestinians good guys and half of them bad guys, they are destroying the people. You can't build a country for only half the people," Liel said.

Since mid-June when Hamas seized control of the Gaza Strip after defeating Abbas' Fatah militants, the geographically-divided Palestinian territories have been politically split into two parts-- with Hamas controlling Gaza and Fatah holding the West Bank.

"At this point, I don't think we can move forward on the political level," he said.
The only thing that could be accomplished right now "might be improving the (Palestinians') humanitarian and economic situation. But for this we don't need an international conference," Liel concluded.

(Xinhua News Agency August 3, 2007)

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