Rice opens talks in Middle East

JERUSALEM — JERUSALEM -- Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice began a new round of Middle East peace talks yesterday with an acknowledgment that her three-month-old initiative is starting slowly and going back over basic issues that divide Israel and the Palestinians.

Rice, who met yesterday with top Israeli and Palestinian officials, described her method as a "step-by-step" approach that requires spending time on such tasks 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 a three-day Middle East trip. "I don't think that's where we are."

Her comments underscored that her greatest challenge is to convince the world that the Bush administration is serious about trying to achieve a breakthrough. Many have suggested that her real goal is to show enough commitment to the Israeli-Palestinian issue that she will win crucial support from Arab governments to help restore Iraq and resist Iran.


She has visited the Middle East seven times in the past eight months, and her immersion in the issue has raised questions about whether she is gearing up for the kind of "shuttle diplomacy" that preoccupied her predecessors.

Yesterday, reporters in the Egyptian city of Aswan and the West Bank town of Ramallah asked Rice her intentions, considering that she was showing so little progress. The effort seems "without substance," said a woman who works for an Egyptian magazine.

"I suppose if it were easy to do, it would have been done before," Rice replied.

Middle East experts have been asking whether Rice has had the support of President Bush, who in his first six years was averse to engaging in the intense diplomatic efforts of his predecessor, President Bill Clinton, and has been reluctant to press Israel to yield ground.

However, Bush expressed support for her mission last week, saying that the negotiations to create a Palestinian state with Israel's assent are "a priority."

Rice met with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah yesterday afternoon and dined with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert last night. She is scheduled to visit Amman, Jordan, where she will meet today with Abbas and Jordan's King Abdullah II before returning to Israel for another round of talks tonight and tomorrow morning.

Paul Richter writes for the Los Angeles Times.