Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (search) warned Israel on Friday not to complicate the path to peace with the Palestinians through new Jewish settlements just as the date approaches for Israelis to fulfill a promise to leave other, established settlements.
"We don't intend that the Israelis try to create facts on the ground," Rice told reporters traveling on the plane with her to Jerusalem. "They simply cannot engage in activities that are supposed to prejudge" the final terms of a peace settlement.
Palestinians regularly charge that Israel has tried to force territorial concessions by building settlements and outposts on land that would presumably belong one day to a separate Palestinian homeland. The two sides are currently arguing over whether Israel will build more than 3,000 new homes near Jerusalem (search).
Rice is visiting the region in part to evaluate plans for a historic Israeli withdrawal from all 21 Jewish settlements on the Gaza Strip (search) and from four of the 120 in the West Bank. The pullout scheduled for August is a major benchmark of progress toward an eventual peace deal.
She will be looking for proof that both sides are living up to their parts of the bargain — a smooth and timely withdrawal for the Israelis and workable Palestinian plans to govern and keep a lid on violence when the Israeli settlers depart.
"What they are doing is moving thousands of people with their effects, and families, and it's going to be complicated," Rice said before her plane stopped for refueling in Ireland. "I know Israel has done a lot of planning; I know the Palestinians have done a lot of planning. Our goal is to make sure they are doing their planning together."
The United States is taking a mostly hands-off approach to the peace process, but Rice's trip marks the second time that she has held separate meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas just ahead of a summit between the two leaders.
Her Middle East visit will also test the Bush administration's commitment to spreading democracy in the region. She meets next week with Arab allies who have imperfect records on human rights, free speech and other basics of democratic governments.
Rice, who replaced Colin Powell in January, is paying her first calls on Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Bush singled out those allies in his State of the Union address to "show the way toward democracy in the Middle East."
Saudi Arabia is governed by a family dynasty, Egypt by the equivalent of one-party rule. Both countries have gotten low marks from the State Department on human rights, and Saudi Arabia was listed for this first time this year on the State Department's roster of countries that do little to combat human trafficking.
Both governments have taken steps toward greater political freedom, with municipal elections in Saudi Arabia this year and a promise for multiparty presidential elections in Egypt in the fall.
Both governments are also major power brokers in the volatile region, and the United States needs their help to contain Islamic terrorism and sustain the resurgent Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Rice will ask for that help and more when she sees Saudi leaders and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, but those leaders will probably be listening closely to what Rice has to say about their own hold on power.
Rice has said democracy cannot be imposed from outside, but she plans to take her case for it directly to the Arab public with a speech at a Cairo university.
Women still cannot vote in Saudi Arabia, and only half the municipal council seats were open to election.
Violence marred a referendum vote in Egypt last month, and rules for the presidential election make it difficult for independent political parties to compete against Mubarak's ruling party.
Rice canceled a splashy trip to the Middle East just weeks into her new job, after a diplomatic dustup over Egypt's jailing of an opposition politician. She did nothing to dispel rumors that she was, if not punishing Mubarak for lackluster commitment to democracy, at least calling a bluff.
The politician was freed and Mubarak quickly announced the new fall voting — the first-ever multiparty presidential elections in the world's most populous Arab country.
Lebanon will complete national elections during Rice's visit to the region, but she is not expected to go there. The Bush administration welcomed the voting as the flowering of the "Cedar Revolution" that helped oust Syrian troops from Lebanon after three decades, but the process could yield a Syrian-allied government.
Rice will also see leaders in Jordan, which gets better marks for political openness. Iraq will be on her agenda there, along with support for the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Jordan is sandwiched between Iraq and Israel.
Iraq remains the subject when Rice leaves the region next week for a day of meetings in Brussels intended to attract more money and expertise for the rebuilding of Iraq's infrastructure and government. She will also attend a planning session in London ahead of next month's Group of Eight economic meeting.