- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 28, 2006

U.S. officials see the struggle between moderates and extremists — not the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — as the defining issue in the Middle East, the State Department said yesterday in announcing that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will visit the region next week.

Although Miss Rice attaches critical importance to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and will explore ways to revitalize it, her more ambitious task will be to urge moderates in the region to unite against extremists, said department spokesman Sean McCormack.

“This is a trip designed to lay the foundations potentially for moving the [peace] process forward,” Mr. McCormack told reporters. “There seems to be a genuine desire among leaders in the region — you start to see some of those emerge in Saudi Arabia, in Egypt, as well as others — to try to move that process forward.”

He acknowledged that “some people subscribe” to a view of “the Palestinian-Israeli dispute being at the heart of all disputes in the Middle East” but said he does not agree.

“I would just look at the issue a little bit differently,” he said. “It will be a frame” for Miss Rice’s conversations during her trip.

He said the secretary will visit Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Israel — countries that are “on the side of moderation” — because they “have an interest in a more stable, peaceful, prosperous Middle East.”

In Egypt, Mr. McCormack said, Miss Rice will discuss with President Hosni Mubarak “the importance of continuing the democratic reform process.”

Asked about Egypt’s mixed record on promoting democracy, he contrasted that country with “forces for extremism and violence” such as Iran, Syria and Hamas, the militant group that controls the Palestinian parliament and government.

Miss Rice plans to meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, head of the Fatah party, but “we are not going to talk to a Hamas-led government, and we are certainly not going to advocate others, including the Israelis, talking to a Hamas-led government,” Mr. McCormack said.

It will be the secretary’s first visit to the region since July during Israel’s border war with Hezbollah. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said yesterday that he hoped to meet with Mr. Abbas soon, but Mr. McCormack said there were no plans for a three-way meeting involving Miss Rice.

Middle East analysts were doubtful that Miss Rice’s trip would produce significant results.

“I don’t see what is achievable at this moment,” said Danielle Pletka, vice president of the American Enterprise Institute. “Islamists are riding high, dictators are feeling comfortable, and the United States seems at best confused about how to deal with both Iran and Iraq. …

“If democracy is the centerpiece [of Miss Rices trip], that’s terrific, because the solution of most problems in the Middle East is broadening the democratic base,” she said. “That seems to have been put on the back burner.”

David Schenker, senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said the only benefit from Miss Rice’s visit would be the show of high-level attention to the region at a time when the administration stands accused of lacking interest in Arab-Israeli affairs.

“This is also a critical time for Lebanon, and lending her support to [Prime Minister Fuad] Siniora’s government … is very important,” Mr. Schenker said.

Mr. McCormack, asked whether Miss Rice might go to Beirut, said he had no additional stops to announce.



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