U.S. narrowing Mideast efforts

RAMALLAH, West Bank -- Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, meeting yesterday with Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, expressed sympathy for the suffering of Palestinians but signaled that her efforts toward Middle East peace now focus on a handful of narrow issues.

Rice said at a news conference that she hopes to reach new agreements to open border crossings, provide new humanitarian aid and improve the Palestinian security agencies.


The focus of her effort, while welcomed by the Palestinians, is far more limited than what has been urged by European and moderate Arab governments in recent days. In the wake of the Lebanon conflict, they have been calling on the Bush administration to intensify its efforts to settle Israeli-Palestinian issues.

Nearly a year ago, Rice brokered a deal that promised to open key transit points and improve the Palestinian territories' commercial ties to Israel and Egypt. But in the face of security threats to Israel and other complications, two key crossings have been mostly closed.


Rice said Palestinians and Americans are working "very closely" on the security issues, including through a special U.S. envoy. She said U.S. officials also would talk about ways in which they might make available more humanitarian aid for Palestinians.

Western aid has been largely stalled after the electoral victory of Hamas, which does not recognize Israel's right to exist and which remains on the State Department's list of terrorist organizations.

Rice said the American teams were looking for ways to end the violence and "to make possible a life for the Palestinian people that is not subject to the kind of daily humiliations that we know have been associated with the occupation."

In the past week, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Egypt have called on the Bush administration to make new peace efforts. Rice also has faced pointed questions during this trip about the Bush administration's intentions in the region.

Asked about the goals of her trip, Rice said that "sometimes what is necessary is to go step by step on the ground to really improve conditions."

Some Palestinians held out hope that the trip, Rice's sixth to Israel and the territories in 21 months as secretary of state, could produce a breakthrough in the Palestinian political stalemate. They hoped it might, for example, bring progress on efforts to exchange prisoners or persuade the Israelis to turn over Palestinian tax revenues withheld since Hamas took over in January.

But Israelis had lower expectations for the trip. Rice ate dinner last night with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and was to meet this morning with Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Defense Secretary Amir Peretz. She scheduled no news conference after the meetings, a step that suggested that the American side had limited ambitions for the visit.

Abbas said talks with Hamas leaders over a "national unity government" were at an impasse and that Palestinians would have to consider whether further efforts were worthwhile. But he did not close the door on further talks.


Paul Richter and Ken Ellingwood write for the Los Angeles Times.