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Rice Lauds Change in Middle East

Diplomat praises moves toward peace, pluralism and those who publicly reject extremism. In Jidda, she opens a new dialogue with Saudis.

November 14, 2005|Tyler Marshall and Laura King | Times Staff Writers

JERUSALEM — Political change across the Middle East, including a perceptible backlash against terrorism, has opened a window of opportunity to end the decades-old dispute between Israel and the Palestinians, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said here Sunday.

In comments to a prestigious gathering of the Saban Forum that included much of Israel's current leadership, U.S. legislators and former Secretary of State James A. Baker III, Rice said the region had begun to move toward greater political pluralism. Referring to Wednesday's hotel bombings in Amman, Jordan, which claimed more than 50 lives, she noted the wave of public condemnation from Muslim clerics, private citizens and leaders.

"This is a profound change, and there are others," she said. "We have hope for peace today because people no longer accept that despotism is the eternal political condition of the Middle East."

Rice arrived in Jerusalem after meeting earlier in the day with officials in Jidda, Saudi Arabia. Those talks focused on strengthening troubled U.S. relations with a crucial Arab ally that the Bush administration is trying to nudge toward a more open political system.

In her speech in Jerusalem, Rice argued that Israel's recent withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and the wide acceptance in Israel that an independent, peaceful Palestinian state was essential to Israeli security also created the opportunity for peace. But she set out conditions for both sides if the elusive goal was to be achieved.

"Now, if Palestinians fight terrorism and lawless violence and advance democratic reforms, and if Israel takes no actions to prejudice a final settlement and works to improve the daily lives of Palestinian people, the possibility of peace is both hopeful and realistic," she said.

Her comments referred to Israeli concerns that Palestinian leaders would not take the necessary measures to shut down militant groups and Palestinian worries that Israel would expand its West Bank settlements in a way that would doom a future Palestinian state.

Moments earlier at the forum, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had underscored Israeli concerns by again criticizing Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, saying he was not acting resolutely enough to rein in militants.

Violence broke out anew just hours later when Israeli troops fatally shot senior Hamas commander Amjan Hanawi in a predawn arrest raid in the West Bank town of Nablus.

Despite Rice's lofty rhetoric about change in the region, the realities coloring relations between the Israelis and Palestinians continue to make even incremental progress a struggle.

For example, Palestinian officials have aired growing frustration about the failure to conclude accords on Gaza's border crossings -- particularly the Rafah crossing with Egypt, Gaza's only link to the outside world other than through Israel.

It has been more than two months since the last Israeli soldiers and Jewish settlers left the territory. Although both sides have said at various times that a pact to fully open the Rafah crossing seemed near, none has materialized. Rice expressed hope that such an accord could be reached during her visit. here.

But arguments have dragged on over such issues as the presence and role of European observers at Rafah and whether Israel would be permitted to monitor the crossing with security cameras. International Mideast envoy James Wolfensohn, whose latest mission coincides with Rice's visit, has lambasted Israel for failing to do more to resolve quarrels over the crossings at Rafah and Karni, the principal commercial conduit between Gaza and Israel.

Wolfensohn toured Karni earlier Sunday and expressed hope that Rice's visit helps to produce an agreement.

In Jidda, Rice inaugurated a deeper dialogue with Saudi Arabia to better manage what has become an increasingly difficult, yet vitally important, relationship for both countries. The meeting established working groups on a range of issues that included counterterrorism, military affairs and energy.

The plan for an ongoing dialogue calls for foreign minister-level meetings every six months to review the groups' progress. Although Rice said she discussed political reform with her Saudi counterpart Sunday, no working group was established to address the issue.

The U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia has been under pressure since it was revealed that 15 of the 19 hijackers in the Sept. 11 attacks were Saudis, and that Saudi money, much of it funneled through Islamic charities, ended up in the hands of extremist groups.

These links, coupled with the perception of many Americans that the Saudi government has done too little to crack down on terrorism, has eroded public support for the relationship.

At the same time, anti-Americanism is high in Saudi Arabia, fueled by a perceived pro-Israel bias in U.S. policy and by the U.S.-led invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq.

At a news conference Sunday, Rice and her Saudi hosts repeatedly underscored their common ground rather than their differences on terrorism, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Iraq.

Prince Saud al Faisal, the Saudi foreign minister, even retracted the criticism of U.S. policy in Iraq he had made during a Washington visit two months ago. At that time, he characterized the decision to move ahead with a divisive constitutional referendum in Iraq as a mistake that could lead to civil war there.

Sunday, however, he said that a series of developments, including a proposed Arab League conference bringing lraq's main political groups together in Cairo to foster reconciliation, had resolved his pessimism. "Now that this step has been taken, my fears are much more eased today than they were when I first expressed them."

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