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Rice encounters skepticism in Mideast

RAMALLAH, West Bank _Two days into her tour of the Middle East, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is encountering widespread skepticism over the depth of the U.S. commitment to negotiating peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

Rice's low-key efforts here, on what she and aides have billed as a "listening" tour, look to many Palestinians—and even some Israelis—mostly like a sop to Washington's moderate Arab allies.

The White House is showing interest, they suspect, to gain Arab backing on what President Bush really cares about: containing Iran and stabilizing Iraq.

"Is the visit, like your previous visit, just for listening?" a Palestinian journalist asked Rice on Sunday, after she traveled a well-worn path, going by motorcade from Jerusalem to this West Bank city, meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and appearing next to him in a brief, 21-minute press conference.

"It's not a bad thing to listen," Rice replied.

But she declared she had registered demands for more U.S. attention to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

"I have heard loud and clear the call for deeper American engagement. ... The United States is absolutely committed to helping to find a solution," she said. Middle East peace should be pursued "on its own merits," she said.

Rice later flew by helicopter to Jordan for meetings and dinner with King Abdullah. The Jordanian monarch urged her to push actively for a revival of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks and implementation of the U.S.-backed "road map" for peace, according to Jordan's Petra news agency.

The leaders of Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, Washington's most important Arab friends, have long complained that U.S. failure to moderate Middle East peace has empowered Islamic extremists and limited their own room for political maneuver.

To be fair, Rice's diplomacy is in a tough spot because both Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert are politically weakened, making it harder to take bold steps.

But the skepticism over U.S. intentions is fueled by the fact that Bush barely mentioned the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in last week's speech outlining a new strategy for Iraq.

And Rice has told reporters traveling with her that she is not carrying any specific plan to advance Bush's goal of a Palestinian state living in peace next to Israel.

On Sunday morning, one of Israel's leading newspapers, Haaretz, called Rice's visit "the right photo-op."

Prominent columnist Aluf Benn predicted she would achieve little. He added: "It's easier for pro-American Arab leaders to be photographed with Rice after she recites slogans of a `two-state solution' and pops into Ramallah to visit Abbas."

In Israel, Olmert's popularity has sunk after last summer's war in Lebanon and persistent charges of corruption against his administration.

Abbas, meanwhile, is wrestling for power with the militant group Hamas, which won legislative elections a year ago. Abbas has renewed talks aimed at forging a national unity government, but rising violence on Palestinian streets has stoked fears of a civil war.

Meeting Abbas in his heavily guarded Ramallah compound, the Muqata, Rice sought to boost him with kind words and hard cash.

She praised his "leadership" and formally conveyed a U.S. offer of $86 million to train and equip his presidential security forces. The funds will be spent only on non-lethal equipment, not weapons or salaries, a senior State Department official said.

Abbas shot down an idea that has been gaining currency in Israel, to establish a temporary Palestinian state with provisional borders, as called for in the "road map."

"We have assured Rice of our refusal of any temporary or transitional solutions, including a state with temporary borders, because we do not believe it to be a realistic choice that can be built upon," the Palestinian leader said.

Rice praised what she called a "successful" meeting last month between Olmert and Abbas.

But the Palestinians complain that Israel has not followed through on promises Olmert made to release $100 million in Palestinian tax funds collected by Israel and reduce Israeli checkpoints on the West Bank.

"Nothing has been released. ... Nothing has been reduced," said Mohamed Edwan, an Abbas spokesman.

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(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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