Condoleezza Rice to bring Israeli and Palestinian leaders together

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will bring together the Israeli and Palestinian leaders in the coming weeks for a hastily arranged three-way summit dedicated to exploring ideas for an eventual Palestinian state, the Israeli prime minister and a U.S. official said Monday.

The announcement came as Rice flew to Egypt after a three day visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories. Rice's talks were aimed at breathing new life into stalled Mideast efforts and bolstering the moderate Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, in his standoff wtih the Islamic militant group Hamas.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told lawmakers of his Kadima party that he and Rice had agreed on "a three-way meeting with Abbas" to be organized "in a short time."

The senior Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said Abbas was "in principle" ready to attend the summit, but that he was waiting for a date and venue to be agreed.

Olmert said his Dec. 23 meeting with Abbas had created a certain momentum in the peace process, and "this momentum has to continue."

"It was agreed upon by both of us that the road map will continue to form the basis of the process," Olmert said, referring to the stalled peace plan backed by the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations. The plan calls for the establishment of an independent Palestinian state.

"This meeting is not a replacement, and will not be a replacement, for the bilateral negotiations between us and the Palestinians," Olmert added.

A senior U.S. official traveling with Rice said the meeting would take place in three or four weeks and would focus on "the political horizon leading to the establishment of a Palestinian state." The official spoke on condition of anonymity pending an official announcement of the summit, the AP said.

At their meeting last month, Olmert promised Abbas a series of goodwill gestures, including the transfer of $100 million (EUR 76 million) in frozen tax money and the easing of West Bank travel restrictions. But the Palestinians have complained about Israel not following through on its pledges.

Olmert's spokeswoman, Miri Eisin, said Monday that Israel is seeking assurances that the money will reach Abbas and not end up in the hands of Hamas. "Hopefully, it will be solved in the upcoming days. We are very hopeful," she said.

In a setback for Rice's efforts, Israel's Housing Ministry published newspaper ads inviting bids for the construction of 44 homes in the largest Jewish settlement in the West Bank, violating pledges to the U.S. to halt such construction. The road map calls for a freeze on all settlement construction.

U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack, who was traveling with Rice, said he was not aware of the advertisements, but added: "Our policy hasn't changed."

Abbas' Fatah movement has been locked in an increasingly bloody power struggle with Hamas since the Islamic group won legislative elections last year. Both Israel and the U.S. are keen on boosting Abbas, a moderate who favors peace talks with Israel. Hamas is committed to Israel's destruction.

The Israeli-Palestinian issue and the conflict in Iraq were expected to dominate Rice's talks with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, whom she met in Luxor, southern Egypt, on Monday. She was scheduled to fly to Saudi Arabia later day for similar talks.

Rice is asking Arab allies to help support the fragile government in Iraq, on whose success much of President George W. Bush's new plan to turn the war around will depend.

The Arab leaders are eager for the U.S. to take a larger role in brokering peace between Israel, the Palestinians and others in the region.

The scheduled meetings with Sunni Arab leaders fell on the same day that Saddam Hussein's half brother and the former head of Iraq's Revolutionary Court were hanged in Iraq. The Sunni former Iraqi dictator's chaotic execution two weeks ago incited Sunni anger and drew worldwide criticism.

The top U.S. diplomat is also meeting Tuesday with counterparts from eight Arab countries in Kuwait. Moderate Arab governments plan to tell Rice they will help Washington stabilize Iraq if the U.S. takes more active steps to revive a broad peace initiative between Israel and its neighbors, Arab officials and media said Sunday.

Jordanian King Abdullah II warned Rice that Iraqi political reconciliation would fail if Sunni Iraqis were not engaged in their country's decision-making.

"Any political process that doesn't ensure the participation of all segments of Iraqi society will fail and will lead to more violence," Abdullah told Rice, according to a statement by his press office.

Along with other U.S. allies like Egypt and Saudi Arabia, Jordan is concerned about the growing Shiite Muslim influence, stretching from Iran through Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. The fear is that the hardline Tehran government will dominate the Mideast and give rise to more extremism, jeopardizing a Mideast settlement and threatening those nations.

Bush's new strategy to send thousands more troops to Iraq met with strong skepticism across the Mideast, where many predicted that even with more soldiers, America would fail to break the cycle of violence.

There were deep doubts that U.S. troops, or the Shiite-led Iraqi government, would tackle what many in the Sunni-dominated Arab world see as the chief threat to Iraq: Shiite militias, blamed for fueling the cycle of sectarian slayings.

Mustafa al-Ani, a military analyst with the Gulf Research Center in Dubai, said the American military has to take down the Shiite militias - particularly the most feared of them, the Mahdi Army, loyal to cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, an ally of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Otherwise, the U.S. will lose any support among Iraq's Sunnis, he said.

Many in the Arab world profoundly distrust al-Maliki's government, believing it is serving Iran's interests at the expense of Sunnis. Bush's plan depends heavily on al-Maliki to use Iraqi troops to crack down on militants from both sides and meet a series of benchmarks to promote reconciliation between Sunnis and Shiites.

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