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Rice to preside over meeting with Israelis, Palestinians

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia—Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's announcement Monday that she will convene an unusual three-way meeting with Israeli and Palestinian leaders on an independent Palestinian state marks an abrupt shift in U.S. Middle East tactics.

Whether the different approach will bring different results remains to be seen.

Until now, Rice and President Bush have been reluctant to get involved in high-profile peacemaking. Their focus has been on one thing: stopping the violence in the Palestinian territories as a precondition for peace talks.

Now Rice is essentially turning that approach on its head.

The idea, as described by the secretary of state and her aides, is this: Sketching out more clearly what an eventual Palestinian state might look like will make it easier for embattled Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to take the tough steps needed to get there.

Rice announced Monday in Luxor, Egypt, that she will preside over the meeting with Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in the coming weeks. She flew to Saudi Arabia later for talks with King Abdullah.

Engineering the three-way get-together was a small achievement. But any real progress faces mammoth obstacles and widespread skepticism.

The London-based Arabic-language newspaper Asharq al-Awsat published a cartoon Monday showing Rice straining to pump air in the tire of a car labeled "new strategy." The tire, labeled "peace process," is leaking air through multiple punctures.

More seriously, both Abbas and Olmert are politically wounded, making it difficult for them to stake out bold positions and make the needed concessions.

Aides to Olmert sought to dampen expectations that the meeting, which isn't even being termed a "summit," would produce a breakthrough.

"We're building the confidence to get to negotiations," Olmert spokeswoman Miri Eisin said after the meeting. "There isn't going to be a meeting and, wow, everything is going to be solved. No, no, no. This isn't about substance yet."

Palestinians were more upbeat. Walid Awad, a spokesman for Abbas' Fatah party, welcomed the news. "A meeting with Secretary Rice and Olmert will give it more value, and it will help move the peace process forward," Awad said.

Rice's announcement is part of Israel and the United States' effort to bolster Abbas. The moderate Palestinian leader's power and authority were undermined a year ago when the hard-line Islamist group Hamas won control of the Palestinian parliament and gained the right to run the Cabinet.

Since then, Israel, the United States and much of the international community have been shunning the Palestinian government until its Hamas leadership renounces its longstanding vow to destroy Israel.

Abbas and Hamas have tried for months to agree on a new government that would accept the international demands. Until the deadlock is broken, it's unlikely that the Bush administration will be able to make significant progress on any negotiations aimed at ending the decades-long conflict.

Rice's new tack is essentially an admission that the old strategy didn't work.

That strategy focused on the long-dormant, U.S.-backed "road map" for peace. But Israelis and Palestinians never got beyond the first phase. That phase called for Palestinians to halt terror attacks against Israel and establish a unified security force and for Israel to dismantle illegal West Bank settlements and halt the expansion of existing settlements.

Rice said she, Olmert and Abbas will "have discussions about the broad issues on the horizon, so we can work on the road map, to try to accelerate the road map and move to the establishment of a Palestinian state."

Part of the U.S. interest in renewing peace efforts lies in its need to get Arab leaders, whose populations sympathize with the Palestinians, to help the United States stabilize Iraq and contain Iran.

Rice got at least rhetorical support on that score Monday from Egypt.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit expressed support for Bush's new Iraq strategy and agreed that Iran should stop meddling in Iraq. "Regarding Iran, Egypt reaffirms that no one should interfere in the internal affairs of Iraq," he said.

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(Nissenbaum reported from Jerusalem.)

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(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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