- The Washington Times - Monday, March 26, 2007

2:18 p.m.

JERUSALEM — Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice encouraged Israel and the Palestinians to continue direct talks as an international diplomatic drive toward Mideast peace gained ground today.

Israel welcomed the idea of a regional peace summit, and Saudi Arabia suggested it would consider changes in a dormant peace initiative that could make it more acceptable to Israel.

The new developments came at a time of high-profile diplomacy, with Miss Rice and United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon both in the region for talks with Israeli and Arab leaders.

Miss Rice has been trying to revive peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, with help from Arab neighbors. Israel has refused substantive talks since moderate Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, whom Israel had called a partner for peace, joined Hamas militants in a coalition government this month.

Hamas is a political and military group that the United States, Israel and the European Union list as a terror group.

“I don’t intend by any means to take control of the Palestinian-Israeli bilateral dialogue,” Miss Rice told reporters before a meeting with Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni. “I think it’s extremely important that that continue.”

However, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said today that he “wouldn’t hesitate” to take part in a regional summit. Palestinian officials cautiously endorsed the idea.

Any such meeting — especially if Saudi and Israeli officials were to meet publicly — would be a huge symbolic breakthrough. Saudis and Israelis are believed to have held private meetings in the past year.

Miss Rice said it is “premature to talk about any specific kind of meeting,” but another U.S. official said the idea of a large group meeting is one proposal among several under discussion. Nothing has been scheduled.

A regional gathering would bring Israel and the Palestinians together as part of wider talks involving moderate Arab countries and four would-be Middle East peacemakers: The U.S., European Union, United Nations and Russia.

The Arab countries involved in the efforts would include Egypt and Jordan, which both have peace agreements with Israel, as well as Saudi Arabia, which does not.

At a joint news conference with Mr. Olmert in Jerusalem, Mr. Ban confirmed that consultations on bringing the many parties together were “ongoing,” but said more talks were needed.

Mr. Olmert said he would look at an invitation to such a summit “in a very positive manner.”

Hopes have been raised in the past, only to be dashed subsequently.

For Miss Rice, this trip follows several months in which she has tried to put substance to President Bushs goal four years ago to eventually have an independent Palestinian state.

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.

After talks with Israeli and Palestinian officials, she traveled to Amman, Jordan, for a second meeting with Mr. Abbas and separate talks with King Abdullah II of Jordan.

“Some good things are there. We just have to put them together,” Miss Rice said before shuttling back to Israel for a second round of meetings.


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