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(photo credit: GPO)
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will be keen on keeping alive the fledgling sense of momentum in the diplomatic process during a 24-hour visit to Israel and the Palestinian Authority beginning on Wednesday afternoon, government officials said in advance of her arrival.
Rice will arrive from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, where she and US Defense Secretary Robert Gates went after a meeting in Sharm e-Sheikh with Egyptian leaders and representatives of the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council.
The sense of momentum that Rice wants to build on stems from events since Hamas took over the Gaza Strip in June, and the steps that have been taken to create a PA in the West Bank that Israel can view as a partner.
This will be Rice's first visit since March. Diplomatic officials said she was expected to ask Israel to continue taking steps to bolster PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, in an effort to underline for the Palestinians the benefits of choosing moderate, rather than extremist, leadership.
"What the US wants to see is a continuation of steps to strengthen the moderates, and the discussion here will deal with looking at other ways to do this," one official said. He said that the idea was to look at ways to move the process from one of individual steps and gestures "up to the next level."
Both Israeli and US diplomatic officials said Rice was unlikely to press Olmert to discuss final-status issues with the Palestinians, since Olmert had already indicated that the Palestinians and Israelis were discussing in general terms how a future Palestinian state would look - the so-called political horizon issues. Olmert and Abbas are scheduled to meet early next week.
Israeli diplomatic officials said the US administration had reacted favorably to recent talk here - primarily spearhead by new Vice Premier Haim Ramon - reflecting a willingness to withdraw from large parts of the West Bank, an idea that lost support following the constant barrage of Kassams from Gaza and the Second Lebanon War.
Rice's visit comes in the wake of US President George W. Bush's July 16 speech on the Middle East and his call for a regional meeting to provide an umbrella of support from neighboring states for Israeli-Palestinian diplomatic moves. Rice's meetings here are also expected to deal with the shape and content of that meeting.
She is scheduled to arrive in the early afternoon and hold meetings one after the other in Jerusalem with Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, President Shimon Peres and Olmert.
The next morning she is scheduled to travel to Ramallah for meetings with Abbas and PA Prime Minister Salaam Fayad.
While Israel was discussed during Rice's and Gates's meetings in Sharm, the focus there was on Iraq and Iran. The US cabinet secretaries said during a joint press conference there that they heard worries from Arab allies about the future of the US military presence in Iraq.
"There clearly is concern on the part of the Egyptians, and I think it probably represents concern elsewhere in the region, that the United States will somehow withdraw precipitously from Iraq, or in some way that is destabilizing to the entire region," Gates told reporters after he and Rice wrapped up meetings with Egypt's top leaders.
He pledged "understanding that this needs to be done carefully and not leave Iraq in chaos."
The United States won no new promises of Arab help for struggling Iraq on Tuesday, but Rice said she heard the right expressions of support after a gathering of several nations listed as recipients of an expanded aid and weapons package for friendly states in the region.
Iraq's Arab neighbors repeated a general pledge to promote stability in Iraq.
"I think we know what the obligations of the neighbors are," Rice said, adding that Egypt and other US allies were working to keep past promises of relief of Iraq's heavy international debt, additional foreign aid and help tamping down violence inside Iraq.
Rice and Gates were making a rare joint show of diplomatic force during two days of meetings with Arab allies - part of an 11th-hour effort to rally diplomatic and practical help for the Shi'ite-led government in Baghdad. The tour also opens talks on a proposed US arms package for Arab states worth more than $20 billion.
A statement issued following a nine-nation meeting promised only "to continue to support Iraq and expand their financial and political support," and restated a general commitment to blocking would-be terrorists and financing that supports them from entering Iraq.
"The... commitment was always to help a united Iraq to reach that point of full stability, and that we have been trying to do over the last four years," Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit said following the joint meeting.
Bush's top diplomatic and military managers have a tough assignment to convince skeptical, mostly Sunni-led Arab nations that they have more to lose if Iraq fails than they stand to gain by waiting until the US leaves or Bush's term ends.
The cabinet secretaries are also trying to solidify what the US sees as a bulwark of generally moderate Arab states against an increasingly ambitious and unpredictable Iran.
"We have also been calling for the noninterference of any foreign powers into Iraq," Aboul Gheit said. "That is something we would renew."
AP contributed to this report.0
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