- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 24, 2007

ASWAN, Egypt — Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice arrived in Egypt yesterday to discuss with Arab nations a long-dormant blueprint that she hopes could revive Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

But her visit, part of a broad diplomatic push by Western powers in the region, also takes place as relations with Cairo were strained by a referendum to be held tomorrow on constitutional changes that limit opposition to the government of President Hosni Mubarak.

Miss Rice is scheduled to hold talks in the southern Egyptian city of Aswan with officials from Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates — the so-called Arab Quartet, which Washington has been trying to enlist in its efforts to stabilize Iraq and resurrect Israeli-Palestinian talks.

She is also due to hold talks with Mr. Mubarak today.

Miss Rice’s visit takes place less than two weeks after the Palestinians put together a national unity government including members of both Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh’s Islamist Hamas and President Mahmoud Abbas’ secular Fatah party.

Miss Rice said her discussions with the four Arab nations would focus on U.S. desires to see an Arab summit in Riyadh this week formally endorse a renewal of the five-year-old Arab initiative for a peace deal with Israel.

The plan offered recognition of the Jewish state if it returns to its 1967 borders, permits the creation of an independent Palestinian state and allows the return of Palestinian refugees.

Israel rejected the take-it-or-leave-it initiative whenSaudi Arabia first made it at the Beirut Arab summit in 2002.

But Israeli leaders have recently spoken more positively of the ideas as a starting point for negotiations as long as they are revised to specify that Palestinian refugees can return to Palestinian-controlled areas not to the Jewish state.

Speaking with reporters ahead of her trip, Miss Rice sidestepped questions about whether she would press for changes in the Arab plan to meet Israel’s concerns, saying it was not up to the United States to make such suggestions.

But she went on to argue that the Arab states needed to “reinvigorate” the plan, turning it from a set of static “principles” that leaves all the work to Israel into an active diplomatic endeavor involving negotiations with the Jewish state.

“This is going to be a process of coming to a place where the Arab initiative is really an active initiative that is structured discussions between parties,” she said. “I don’t think we’re there yet.”

In Miss Rice’s view, the Arab initiative would provide a parallel track for peace efforts to run alongside her frustrated drive to breathe life into Israeli-Palestinian negotiations that have been moribund for years.

Miss Rice has made breaking the deadlock and getting Israelis and Palestinians onto the path toward a permanent two-state peace deal a centerpiece of the Bush administration’s last two years in office.

Despite making 10 trips to the region over the past two years, Miss Rice has made virtually no progress.

The recent Palestinian power-sharing deal effectively torpedoed a U.S. effort to sideline Hamas by brokering direct peace talks between Israel and Mr. Abbas.

The new Cabinet has received a guarded welcome from the European Union, the United Nations and the United States, whose officials have met only non-Hamas members of the lineup.

Only Norway, which is not a part of the European Union, has fully normalized relations with the new government.

Miss Rice touched down in Aswan amid tension over today’s referendum, which is expected to enshrine constitutional changes slammed by human-rights groups and opposition parties as a major setback for democratic pluralism and basic freedoms.

Washington had recently eased the pressure on Egypt — once the centerpiece of its efforts for democratic reform in the region — but Miss Rice voiced her concern and disappointment over the referendum.

Mr. Mubarak and Foreign Minister Ahmad Aboul Gheit hit back by defending the amendments and urging Washington not to meddle in Egypt’s internal affairs.

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