Rice crosses women's rights and culture in Middle East

Condoleezza Rice said Thursday at a conference on women's peace efforts in the region that democracy in the Middle East will not flourish until women gain greater rights and roles.

"It's absolutely the case that unless women are fully participants of their societies ... these societies cannot really be fully democratic, and that is something we're absolutely devoted to," Rice told reporters in Vienna.

Women in the Middle East must find "the appropriate balance between tradition and empowerment," she said at the meeting hosted by Austrian Foreign Minister Ursula Plassnik, who described efforts to empower them as "a precious moment."

Rice was joined at the conference by Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni; Benita Ferrero-Waldner, the EU's external relations commissioner; Palestinian legislator Hanan Ashrawi; and Sheikha Haya Rashed Al Khalifa, outgoing president of the U.N. General Assembly.

Rice also was addressing the 56-nation Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and meeting with members of the Women's Empowerment Network, an initiative that unites female foreign ministers and presidents from around the globe.

Participants were to meet behind closed doors for a round-table discussion titled "Women Leaders - Networking for Peace and Security in the Middle East."

Plassnik said they had no illusions about the problems in the volatile region and would not shy away from talking frankly about its "open wounds."

"We have no illusions about the obstacles still facing us, nor about the urgency for action," Plassnik said in a statement. "We will not let ourselves be discouraged."

Rice arrived in Vienna from Berlin, where she met with her German and Russian counterparts and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to discuss the recent escalation of violence in the Gaza Strip and parts of Lebanon.

On Thursday, Rice told reporters she saw hopeful signs that progress was possible in forging peace in the Middle East.

She said Washington continued to work toward "the establishment of the Palestinian state to live side by side with Israel in peace and security."

"I think it has been long enough since Palestinians have wanted and needed their state, and long enough that Israelis have wanted and needed a neighbor that could be a source of security and not a source of threat for them," Rice said.

Rice acknowledged the difficulties, but said trends in the region pointed to a "time of opportunity."

"If this had been something that was easy to achieve, it would have been achieved by now," she said.