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U.S. cautiously renews role in Middle East peace process

JERUSALEM—After a three-year break, the United States is returning to the job of helping broker peace between Israel and the Palestinians, but it is moving cautiously for now.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, less than two weeks in office, arrived here Sunday to confer with Israeli and Palestinian leaders on the eve of their summit Tuesday in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheik. The summit could lead to a formal cease-fire.

Rice immediately declared it "a time of optimism" and said the Bush administration will help take advantage of the sudden momentum toward peace talks after 4 { years of violence and despair.

In meetings Sunday night, Rice urged Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his team to forge ahead with Israel's plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip and take other steps to bolster the fragile position of recently elected Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

"We will ask of our partners and our friends here ... that Israel continue to take the hard decisions that must be taken in order to promote peace" and a Palestinian state, she said.

On Monday, Rice will meet Abbas and his team at their headquarters in the West Bank city of Ramallah and deliver a similar message. She will ask them to dismantle the network of armed Palestinian militants who have largely held their fire in recent weeks, but remain a mortal threat to hopes for peace.

Rice's arrival here at the start of her tenure, and President Bush's announcement last week that he will seek $350 million in aid for the Palestinians, mark a break from the hands-off posture Bush adopted before the death of longtime Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

Rice is the most senior U.S. official to meet Abbas since he was elected on Jan. 9 to replace Arafat.

But the extent of the American peace-making role is still to be decided, top U.S. and Israeli officials say.

Rice has sketched out a supporting, not leading, position.

She won't attend the Sharon-Abbas summit in Egypt, saying it's better for the two sides to negotiate directly and with the backing of neighboring Arab nations.

She has publicly urged Arab countries to pay up on earlier promises of financial support to the Palestinians.

And the secretary of state said earlier in Turkey, which she visited before coming here, that she and Bush are holding off appointing a high-level U.S. envoy to shepherd peace talks.

Washington could instead send monitors to help implement a cease-fire between Israel and the Palestinians and will be deeply involved in helping train Palestinian security forces to fight terrorism, Rice said.

"The United States will be very actively involved both ... to try and stabilize the situation on the ground, but also to help to bring about Palestinian security forces that can actually fight terror," she told CNN in an interview from Ankara, Turkey.

Some Israeli officials see Rice as a formidable player in the Middle East dispute, because of her closeness to Bush and because she has proven herself an outspoken supporter of Israel.

"She's seen in this country as a friend. That means she has leverage," said a senior Israeli official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The senior official vigorously denied Israeli press commentary that some of the Sharon team would rather have Rice and the United States out of the diplomatic picture entirely.

Rice's low-key approach makes sense because Israelis and Palestinians are making progress on their own, the official said.

"As you say in America, `If it's not broke ... ,'" he said.

U.S., Israeli and Palestinian officials say the biggest threat to progress is Abbas' perceived lack of control over militant groups opposed to compromise with Israel.

Rice, in a meeting with Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, urged the Israelis not to take steps that would further undercut Abbas.

Shalom praised Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, for taking a number of concrete steps, including deploying Palestinian security forces to Gaza and curbing incitement against Israel, the senior Israeli official said.

But Shalom said Abbas has yet to move to permanently shut down Palestinian terror groups, the official said.

Israel fears they could use a cease-fire to regroup for attacks later.

Meanwhile, an agreement over Israel's release of Palestinian prisoners was deferred until the summit Tuesday. Several ministers in Sharon's government opposed releasing Palestinians involved in terrorist attacks on Israelis.

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(Knight Ridder Newspapers special correspondent Cliff Churgin in Jerusalem contributed to this report.)

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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