Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, leaving for a trip to the Middle East, criticized Hamas for not releasing captured IDF Cpl. Gilad Schalit. He was taken in late June when Hamas-affiliated gunmen tunneled under the border between Gaza and Israel and attacked an army base. "It certainly would have gotten this national unity government off to a better start internationally than it's off to right now," Rice said. Rice expressed hope that the United States might one day propose its own solutions to the most vexing problems dividing Israel and the Palestinians, such as the borders of an eventual independent Palestinian state.
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In the meantime, Rice said, she wants to use meetings like those she will attend in coming days in Jerusalem and the West Bank to draft a common set of questions and concerns on both sides. She gave no timetable for either effort but made clear that the United States would be at the center of them.
"I don't rule out that at some point that might be a useful thing to do," Rice said when asked about presenting a set of US proposals to settle enduring problems that have scuttled past negotiations for peace. Those include borders, the fate of Jerusalem and the rights of Palestinians and their descendants who left when Israel was formed in 1948.
Rice is trying to invigorate new peace talks despite long odds. She will see Israeli and Palestinian Authority leaders separately on this trip, which comes a week after the Palestinians formed a coalition government that falls short of international demands.
"What I want to do is to establish...a common approach in parallel between the two parties, to have a mechanism or certain elements that I am using to structure the discussion," Rice told reporters before leaving for her trip.
"I hope that I can get them to see that there is some advantage to having a common language, a common approach, a common mechanism for working through what issues have to be resolved," Rice said.
Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas said Thursday that a deal has been reached to free Schalit, but details still have to be worked out.
Rice said she will shuttle between the two sides to develop that common set of concerns, but she said she hopes she can produce a document "which might eventually allow for a way for them to structure a conversation between them."
For now, Rice is repeating a well-tested pattern from past peace negotiations, where the United States is a go-between and provocateur. That is another step toward the kind of central role in Israeli-Arab peacemaking that the Bush administration resisted in its early years.
Part of Rice's goal on this trip is to rally greater Arab support for peace efforts, and the smaller, practical steps that would precede any substantive peace talks. She is seeing leaders and diplomats from Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, the so-called Arab quartet.