- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 25, 2007

RAMALLAH, West Bank - Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said yesterday that she is taking it slow and steady as she assembles the elements for what might be a new Middle East peace plan.

“My approach has been, I admit, careful,” Miss Rice said, because too many past efforts have failed despite what seemed to be clear objectives. “It’s been step by step. I have not been willing to try for the big bang.”

Miss Rice is midway through a shuttle diplomacy mission that evokes previous failed attempts to unite Israelis and the Palestinians. It is her fourth trip to the region in as many months.

Miss Rice has been trying to attach substance to the goal of an eventual independent Palestinian state, outlined by President Bush four years ago. On this trip, Miss Rice says she is developing a common set of questions that both sides can use for discussions with her or on their own.

“If you’re going to talk about a political horizon, you have to know what’s blocking the horizon,” Miss Rice told reporters traveling with her.

U.S. officials are coy about whether Miss Rice has something more ambitious in mind. But the secretary made clear that a “big bang” such as a detailed program for peace that is written and backed by Washington or a Camp David-style summit is not coming soon.

The Bush administration may try that kind of bold stroke, but time is limited. Mr. Bush leaves office in 18 months.

On this trip, the top U.S. diplomat is meeting separately with Palestinian and Israeli diplomats and leaders who have moved further apart since she began an intensified effort to improve the prospects for a final peace deal.

It is her duty, Miss Rice said “to try to push forward, to try to move the ball forward, to try to move the Palestinian state forward.”

Miss Rice spoke after a lengthy private meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

The delicate arrangements for her meetings in Ramallah illustrated the changed political landscape since Mr. Abbas agreed to govern hand in hand with Hamas, the militant Islamic group that the United States and Israel brand a terrorist organization.

The new government was formed last week under terms that do not satisfy international demands to recognize Israel, renounce violence and agree to abide by past peace deals.

U.S. law forbids direct contact with Hamas members, but Miss Rice also chose not to see other Cabinet members.

She said the U.S. will decide case by case which non-Hamas officials to see, based largely on their records. Israel has taken a harder line, refusing all contact with a Palestinian Cabinet that it considers tainted.

Israel has ruled out peace talks as long as an unrepentant Hamas is in charge, but says it will talk to the moderate Mr. Abbas on humanitarian and other matters.

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