US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is expected to visit Israel as early as next week to exploit what she perceives as an opportunity to break the deadlock on the stalled peace process. In speaking of her upcoming visit to the region, US State Department spokesman Sean McCormack told reporters over the weekend that Rice believed "there is a potential opening here to make progress on the issue of a two-state solution, Israel and Palestine living side by side in peace and security." McCormack did not offer specific examples as to why Rice saw an opportunity at this point. He did, however, add that the US was not alone in looking to "exploit" possibilities to move the situation forward at this time. Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries also believed there is an opportunity here, he said. Still, he said, "many, many things would need to happen to in order to achieve that goal." The Palestinians had to sort out their political differences as a prerequisite for progress to be made, McCormack said. He had harsh words for the Palestinian Authority's governing party Hamas, which he said "had failed to govern" and was an obstacle for "achieving a Palestinian state." McCormack lauded PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas for his efforts to solve the conflict between his Fatah party and Hamas and to create a government that would meet international standards. In the interim, he said, it was possible to work with Abbas and to take steps to shore up "some of the institutions and people around him." European Union Foreign Policy Chief Javier Solana, who met with Rice in the White House on Thursday, was less optimistic. Solana, who is also due to visit the region later this month, said, "I don't think that optimism is the word. We have to stick to the word realism. We will try to see how we can give a push to the peace process." He declined to say whether Rice would try to set up a peace conference. On Friday in Paris, French President Jacques Chirac renewed his call for an international conference on the Middle East, saying he was deeply concerned by the growing number of crises there. "At Europe's gate, the Middle East has become an epicenter of international tensions," Chirac said. "Crises are building up and spreading." For months, Chirac has called for an international conference on the Middle East. The European Union should relaunch the work of the so-called Quartet peacemakers - the United States, the EU, Russia and the United Nations - with a proposal for a conference, he said. Chirac said it should be "a new form of conference that, without claiming to dictate the terms of the settlement to the parties involved, would bring the new guarantees that they aspire to." "Then, I am persuaded, a true dynamic of negotiation could be launched," Chirac said. In Washington at the end of last week, President George W. Bush and German Chancellor Angela Merkel also spoke of trying to advance a Middle East peace agreement. Merkel was in Washington for a brief visit just days after Germany assumed the rotating presidencies of the European Union and the Group of Eight major industrialized nations. At a joint press conference between the two, Bush also praised Merkel for her efforts to put the so-called Quartet at the center of a revived Israeli-Palestinian peace effort. "Madame Chancellor had a good idea to convene the Quartet," Bush said. "We're strongly committed to a two-state solution. Two democracies supporting each other's rights to exist," Bush said. In Berlin Friday, Merkel's spokesman Ulrich Wilhelm sidestepped questions about what the Quartet might propose and whether it will hold a high-level meeting in Paris later this month. AP contributed to this report.