(photo credit: AP [file])
Officials in Washington have confirmed that US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will arrive in Israel and the Palestinian Authority on July 16 for her first visit to the region since Hamas seized power in the Gaza Strip.
Rice is due to meet with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in Jerusalem and with Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah. The secretary of state also plans to meet with Egyptian intelligence head Omar Suleiman.
Jerusalem will be able to present Rice with two significant gestures made to boost Abbas's standing: the release of frozen Palestinian tax revenues and the freeing of 250 Fatah security prisoners, expected to be completed before she arrives in the region.
A US official said Friday night that Rice might meet with members of the international Quartet - the US, EU, UN, and Russia - during her visit, but that such a meeting had yet to be confirmed.
In the meantime, the Quartet meeting is tentatively set to take place in Egypt when Rice arrives on July 16. Mid-level Quartet representatives are scheduled to meet in London on Tuesday to work out the details of the July 16 meeting.
Talks are also being planned between the Quartet and the Arab Quartet of Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
The flurry of diplomatic activity in mid-July may be rounded off by the visit to Israel of an Arab League delegation comprised of the Egyptian and Jordanian foreign ministers, although a date for such a visit still needs to be finalized.
An official in Jerusalem stressed that talks with the Arab League on the Arab peace plan of 2002 are designed to complement bilateral Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, not replace them. The idea is to provide the Palestinians with a diplomatic umbrella and create an atmosphere in which Abbas will have the backing of moderate elements in the Arab world.
Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi also arrives in the region on Sunday.
He will hold talks Monday with Olmert, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Defense Minister Ehud Barak. The Italian premier will also visit Yad Vashem and travel to Sderot.
On Tuesday, Prodi travels to Ramallah for talks with Abbas and PA Prime Minister Salaam Fayad.