JERUSALEM — U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice began a new round of Mideast peace talks Sunday with an acknowledgment that her 3-month-old initiative is starting slowly and going back over basic issues that divide Israel and the Palestinians.
Rice, who met with the top Israeli and Palestinian officials, described her method as a "step-by-step" approach that requires spending time on such spadework as sitting patiently with leaders from both sides to learn their views.
"I haven't been willing to try for the big bang," she told reporters on the second day of her Mideast trip. "I don't think that's where we are."
Her comments underscored that her greatest challenge is to convince the international community that the Bush administration is serious about trying to achieve a breakthrough on one of the world's most intractable problems during the president's final 20 months in office.
Many observers have suggested that her real goal is to show enough commitment to the Israeli-Palestinian issue that she can win crucial support from Arab governments to help restore Iraq and resist Iran.
She has visited the Middle East seven times in the last eight months, and her immersion in the details of the issue has raised questions about whether she is gearing up for the kind of "shuttle diplomacy" that preoccupied her predecessors. But she still lacks the large retinue required for such efforts.
Observers in the region remain puzzled. On Sunday, local reporters in both the southern Egyptian city of Aswan and the West Bank city of Ramallah asked what her intentions were, considering that her initiative was showing so little observable progress. The effort seemed "without substance," said a woman who worked for an Egyptian magazine.
"I suppose if it were easy to do, it would have been done before," Rice responded.
On a crucial question, Mideast diplomats and experts also have been asking whether Rice really has had the support of President Bush, who in his first six years in office was averse to engaging in intense efforts similar to those of his predecessor, President Clinton, and has been deeply reluctant to press Israel to yield ground.
Observers have pointed out that for months Bush had said little in public about Rice's effort. In the United States and the Mideast region, some suggested that he might pull the plug on the enterprise if he didn't like where it was headed.
However, the president last week voiced support for her mission, saying that the negotiations to create a separate Palestinian state with Israel's assent were "a priority." At the same time, the Bush administration has opened a small but real gap between its position and that of Israel -- something that has happened rarely in the last six years.
U.S. officials have said that they will deal directly with non-Hamas ministers of the new Palestinian unity government, potentially angering Israeli officials. And the Americans have said that they will judge the Palestinian Authority administration on its deeds, and not just on declared positions that the U.S. finds unacceptable, such as its refusal to renounce violence or recognize Israel.
Rice launched her mission in January with an announcement that she would sponsor three-way talks with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in the region. Those talks began with a conversation that both leaders later described as ugly.
But the situation grew more complicated when the Palestinians this month formed the unity government that involved members of Abbas' Fatah party and those of Hamas, which the U.S. and Israel consider a terrorist group.
With Olmert insisting that his government won't talk to Palestinians except on day-to-day issues, Rice decided to hold separate meetings with the Israelis and Palestinians, allowing each side to discuss its goals.
She met with Abbas in Ramallah during the afternoon, and dined with Olmert at night. Today, she is scheduled to visit Amman, Jordan, where she will meet with Abbas and Jordanian King Abdullah II before returning to Israel for another round of talks this evening and Tuesday morning.
Also visiting Abbas on Sunday was United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who said at his arrival on Saturday that he believed that he saw a "moment of gathering dynamism" on the issue.
Rice also has been trying to draw leading Arab nations into the conversation. She hopes that their presence will provide momentum to the negotiations by adding pressure on the Palestinian side and giving Israel the incentive of normalized relations.
She has asked that the Arab League reaffirm its commitment to the Arab peace initiative of 2002, which in effect offers regionwide peace to Israel if it is willing to return to its pre-1967 borders and reach an acceptable deal with Palestinian refugees. Rice says she wants the initiative to become the basis for talks.
Rice says that her goal with the Israelis and Palestinians is to first get them to settle on an agreed set of issues.
She often describes this objective in the vaguest of terms; she said Sunday that she was aiming at "an approach to get to an agenda."
Despite this, some observers are convinced she means business.
Daniel Levy, a former top negotiator for Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, said he was convinced that Rice intended to visit the region repeatedly to pressure the parties.
"She's wearing them down," said Levy, who is now at the New America Foundation in Washington. "This isn't just for appearances, because appearances don't get you very far. If this is about getting Arab support for the U.S. agenda, you have to make progress."
Times staff writer Richard Boudreaux contributed to this report.