DEAD SEA, Israel – A senior State Department official traveling with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in Jordan denied Wednesday that the Bush administration and moderate Arab allies in the Middle East are "trading off against each other" issues critical to both sides.
Speaking to reporters on a conference call, the official specifically rejected claims that the two sides are exchanging offers of assistance with Sunnis in Iraq for help with the Israelis in advancing the Middle East peace process.
The official bristled at "lumping these things together" even as he acknowledged that "in the public psyche they are." He said the United States, for example, would not trade assistance in dealing with sectarian violence in Iraq for "the future of the Lebanese people."
Rice is scheduled to meet Thursday with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the Palestinian stronghold of Jericho. The official said the two will discuss how the U.S. and other governments can strengthen security organizations loyal to Abbas, who has been fighting for relevance against the senior Palestinian coalition partner, Hamas, a U.S.-designated terror group that won parliamentary majority last Spring.
The official said the Palestinian interior ministry controlled by Hamas oversees the Palestinian's police force but Abbas controls the Badr Brigade, the Palestinian equivalent of the National Guard. Under a plan formulated by U.S. Army General Keith Dayton, who has been working on security issues in the region for some time, the Badr Brigade has deployed to northern Gaza, where Israeli Defense Forces have been pursuing Palestinian militants shooting rockets into Israel.
The official said some violations have occurred to the cease-fire in Gaza, which have been responded to with "restraint on the Israeli side." The United States would like to see the cease-fire extended to the West Bank.
Rice will also want to hear Abbas' latest update on his so-far unsuccessful efforts to form a national unity government with Hamas, an effort which the official said has "hit some roadblocks" and has left American officials believing they will be facing a Hamas-led government in the Palestinian Authority "for some time."
While the official rejected suggestions that the United States is being "held hostage" by Hamas' obstructionism, he conceded that "we have been handicapped" by the group's refusal to meet Western demands that it recognize Israel, repudiate terrorism and accept previous Palestinian accords with Israel and the West.
Rice is also scheduled to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in Jerusalem immediately after her talk with Abbas. She and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni may come out to reporters afterward to discuss some "new suggestions" the Israelis have recently put forward for advancing the moribund peace process.
Because of the cease-fire in Gaza and recent remarks by Olmert, the official said he sees some "momentum and opportunity at this time" for progress in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
After these meetings, Rice will race back to the Dead Sea for a round of media interviews with U.S. press, including with FOX News, and then she will attend a session of the Gulf Cooperation Council, a forum of Arab and Muslim states with whom Rice last met in Egypt about a month ago. The U.S. agenda for the meeting includes discussion on Darfur, Iraq, Lebanon, the Palestinians and Iran.
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the postponement of meeting between President Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki will have no bearing on Rice's tight schedule of meetings in the region on Thursday. Thursday's schedule for Bush and al-Maliki remains unchanged.
FOX News' James Rosen contributed to this report.