(photo credit: AP)
US President George W. Bush is set to take a more active role in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, his top diplomat said in an interview transcript released Wednesday.
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told USA Today Bush would be visiting the region because "he very much wants to signal support for the bilateral process between the parties and to continue in a hands-on way to encourage them to move forward."
Still, she described that approach as not one that says, "All right, I'm going to go ahead and fix this for you," but one emphasizing talking to the parties, in which "he'll be able to get a strong sense of where the points of convergence are that maybe they won't see, and where the points of divergence are as well."
Rice cited Bush's role at the recent Annapolis conference in which Israel-Palestinian negotiations were formally relaunched. At Annapolis, Bush pledged to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas that the US would be "actively engaged" and help the parties.
Until now, Bush has taken a low-key approach to peacemaking, delegating authority to Rice. While she has visited Israel eight times this year to facilitate negotiations, Bush will be making his first official trip when he comes in January.
In the interview, Rice declined to provide further specifics on Bush's itinerary, saying there would be further diplomatic movement before the trip takes place. But she did acknowledge that there would be other stops in the region, in part because the United States sees broader Arab backing as crucial for the effort.
"The Palestinians can't make those tough choices without Arab support," Rice said, "and the Israelis, I think, will have a hard time taking those tough choices unless they know that this is really going to be an end to the conflict more broadly than just with the Palestinians, and that a comprehensive peace is really possible."
The Bush administration has faulted former president Bill Clinton's administration for not having greater involvement from the surrounding Arab states as one of the reasons the Oslo process didn't succeed.
In the interview, however, Rice also pointed to former PA chairman Yasser Arafat as the main reason for the failure.
"I really do think that the inability of Yasser Arafat to make a decision in favor of peace - because he wanted to keep his option, his options on violence - was probably the core issue, the core problem," she said.
Rice also had some critical words for Israel and its decision to allow further construction in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Har Homa.
"This is a time to build confidence between the parties and... something like the Har Homa activity undermines confidence," she said. "It's really important that as they go into negotiations, there isn't a sense that one party or the other is trying to take steps on the ground that can prejudge final status, a sort of creating facts on the ground."
Rice said she had received "clarification" about the activity there in recent conversations with Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, but "the obligation to be very careful about activities that undermine confidence, that admonition remains, and that was the admonition that I communicated."
Also Wednesday, the White House announced it again had suspended the move of the US Embassy to Jerusalem for another six months.
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