WASHINGTON – Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is renewing efforts to revive stalled Mideast peace talks, visiting the region this week for the first time since a U.N.-brokered cease-fire halted Israel's war with Hezbollah terrorists.
Rice planned stops in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Israel and the West Bank to consult with leaders. On Tuesday, she meets with Egypt's president and eight Arab foreign ministers in Cairo with the Israel-Palestinian dispute at the top of the agenda.
During her last visit to the region in August, Rice took heavy criticism for U.S. unwillingness to move for a quicker end to fighting in Lebanon.
This time, Rice's goal will be to move the U.S. democracy agenda forward with a discussion of threats to stability and moderation in the region such as Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah, her spokesman said last week.
Rice's visit comes amid some progress in the U.N.-brokered cease-fire, which took effect Aug. 14. On Sunday, the Israeli army abandoned almost all of its positions in Lebanon, a key step in fulfilling a major condition of the truce.
Still, Israel said it was "now waiting for Lebanon to do its part" — to keep Hezbollah out of the south and disarm it. Israel also plans to continue surveillance flights, which both Lebanon and the U.S. consider a violation of the border.
Rice plans to hold the Bush administration's third meeting in two weeks with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas. The embattled secular leader was called a "man of courage" last week by President Bush for trying to revive peace talks despite a continued political stalemate with Hamas militants.
The top U.S. diplomat hopes to revive and expand agreements allowing transfer of goods and freer movement for Palestinians in and out of their separate territories in Gaza and the West Bank. The territories on opposite flanks of Israel would form an independent Palestinian state under a U.S.-backed plan for long-term peace.
But prospects for a return to active peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians have looked dim this year, partly because the political upheaval in both governments kept leaders' attention focused inward.