Muted hopes in Mideast

JERUSALEM --Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her Israeli counterpart declared yesterday their support for a bilateral diplomatic strategy enabling moderate political leaders across the Middle East, but offered little new to push ahead any agreement with the Palestinians.

Rice played down expectations for any breakthrough during her travels.


"I expect this trip to really be one in which we have intensive consultations," she said, opening weeklong travels across the Middle East and the Persian Gulf before consulting with allies in Western Europe. "I'm not coming with a proposal. I'm not coming with a plan."

The focus of her first two days is to push Israeli and Palestinian leaders to move forward on a number of smaller issues, and then she will speak with other regional allies to try to gather support for President Bush's new strategy for Iraq.


Tzipi Livni, the Israeli foreign minister, said after a meeting with Rice that the two countries were joined in an "ongoing mutual effort to empower the moderates throughout the region in the struggle against extremism and terror."

Asked to describe whether plans were being drawn to accelerate or skip portions of the long-sidelined peace plan from 2002 - backed by the United Nations, Russia, the United States and the European Union, which describes sequential measures to be carried out by Israelis and Palestinians to reach a full political settlement - Livni defended the process as balancing the need to give Palestinians "a political horizon" while cutting "the process into phases."

Rice sought to describe signs of optimism, especially after recent contacts between Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president, and Ehud Olmert, the Israeli prime minister.

"I think there are openings now that are there as a result of this alignment, there as a result of the obvious desire of Prime Minister Olmert and President Abbas to move forward," she said. "So I think the opening is there, but I can't really judge until I've had a chance to really talk to all the interested parties about how we can accelerate the road map, how quickly we can accelerate the road map and how we begin to talk about the political horizon that everybody is interested in.

In Palestinian developments yesterday, the two main factions, Fatah and Hamas, were trying again to form a unity government. The process has gone for months without agreement, frequently breaking down amid street battles between the rivals.

Envoys for Abbas have been in contact with Hamas' exiled political chief, Khaled Mashal, who is in Damascus, Syria, Palestinian officials said.

Ismail Radwan, a Hamas spokesman in the Gaza Strip, said this was "one of several Arab and Palestinian efforts to solve the differences."

Radwan also said he believed that Abbas and Mashal were likely to meet relatively soon.


In a related matter, Abbas traveled from the West Bank city of Ramallah to neighboring Jordan to discuss the political developments with King Abdullah II, who has sought to mediate the Palestinian infighting. Abbas returned to the West Bank later yesterday and will meet with Rice today.

A Palestinian unity government would seek to end the internecine fighting and establish a leadership acceptable to Western countries, which cut off financing after Hamas, the radical Islamic faction, came to power in elections early last year. Hamas' political wing controls the current Cabinet, though Abbas, of Fatah, also has substantial powers as president of the Palestinian Authority.

Also yesterday, 80,000 Palestinian government workers, about half of the total, agreed to end a strike that had lasted for months. Most of the striking workers are from the West Bank, and many are considered sympathetic to Fatah. In Gaza, where Hamas is much stronger, government workers have not gone on prolonged strikes.

The workers were protesting the government's inability to pay wages.

The Hamas government has paid salaries only partially and sporadically because of the suspension of aid from Western countries and the withholding of tax revenues collected by Israel on behalf of the Palestinians.