- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 1, 2008

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, expressing optimism that an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal still can be reached before President Bush leaves office, departs today on a critical diplomatic mission designed to pump new life into the faltering negotiations.

But Miss Rice, in an address to the American Jewish Committee Tuesday evening, said an agreement will require “difficult, painful sacrifices” from both sides and expressed concern that many younger Palestinians appear to have lost hope of ever obtaining their own state through peaceful means.

“I believe that we have a chance now to reach agreement this year on the basic contours of a peaceful Palestinian state,” Miss Rice said, adding the U.S. administration is trying to build on the momentum of the 60-nation Mideast summit President Bush convened in Annapolis in November.

But the road to peace remains strewn with obstacles, including deep internal divisions among the Palestinians, Palestinian and Arab outrage over new Israeli settlements on disputed lands, and almost daily violence on the ground in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who met with Mr. Bush last week, was openly pessimistic of the diplomatic progress made since Annapolis. Palestinian officials say they fear they will be offered far less than the comprehensive peace deal they thought was on offer in Annapolis.

Mr. Bush is scheduled to return to the region himself in mid-May, with stops in Israel, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. But in a sign of the tense atmosphere, U.S. officials so far have been unable to schedule a joint meeting between Mr. Bush, Mr. Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

Jordanian Foreign Minister Salaheddin al Bashir, who met with Miss Rice yesterday at the State Department, said he remained an optimist but that any peace deal will require intense work by all sides. Failure to strike a deal, he warned in a briefing at the Brookings Institution yesterday, could leave all sides worse off.

“I believe the opportunity can still be realized in the next eight months, but it will require the engagement of the international community and the engagement of the United States administration for it to happen,” Mr. al Bashir said.

But, he added, “if this window closes, I think we have to be pessimistic on the question of violence. The ability to open this window again will certainly become more difficult.”

Mr. Olmert made a surprise visit to Jordan yesterday to discuss the peace negotiations with King Abdullah II. Neither side elaborated on the substance of the visit. Jordan is, along with Egypt, one of just two Arab countries to have full diplomatic relations with Israel.

Miss Rice’s trip will begin with a stop in London for an international conference on improving the devastated Palestinian economy. The stopover will also include a meeting with officials from the United Nations, European Union and Russia — the other members of the so-called Quartet — to assess the post-Annapolis landscape.

The secretary also will press allies to make good on pledges of aid to the Palestinians first offered at a Paris conference in December.

Other meetings during her European stop will focus on containing Iran’s nuclear program and coordinating U.S. and European support for the just-declared state of Kosovo.

In the Middle East, Miss Rice is set to hold closed-door talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders.

In her address to the Jewish-American group Tuesday, Miss Rice echoed the hard line taken by Mr. Bush against Hamas, the militant Islamist group that wrested control of the Gaza Strip from Mr. Abbas’ government in fighting last summer.

“The only responsible policy is to isolate Hamas and defend against its threats,” she said, “until Hamas makes the choice that supports peace.”

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