RIYADH, Saudi Arabia – U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Tuesday that the United States wants Arab nations to do more to reach out to Israel, as a way to do their part to nudge a Mideast peace accord into being.
Rice spoke from Saudi Arabia, at the side of its foreign minister, Prince Saud, giving her words and the U.S. position more weight.
"We have believed that it will be important for the regional states, the Arab states to do everything possible to encourage the process and that, yes, there should be efforts to reach out to the Israelis as this process goes forward," she said.
She stepped gingerly around the question of whether this outreach should include establishing diplomatic relations between Arab countries and Israel, the historical enemy. The only Arab nations that now have relations with Israel are Jordan and Egypt.
"Diplomatic relations of course is another matter and undoubtedly down the road," Rice said. "But there are things that can be done. ... We hope that as progress is made between Israelis and Palestinians that there will be more efforts, that there will be more opportunity for outreach. But this will move at different speeds for different countries, we understand that."
Rice is a senior member of U.S. President George W. Bush's delegation as he travels through the Mideast, with one of his primary objectives to build support for the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. The president wants Arab states to support Palestinian leaders as they negotiate with Israel over a final peace agreement, which Bush wants done by the end of the year. The support of Arab neighbors is considered crucial to Palestinians' ability to both strike and sustain a deal. But Washington also sees Arab acknowledgment of Israel's place in the region as vital to the process.
Arab allies, including Egypt and Saudi Arabia, have urged Bush himself to get more directly involved in Mideast peacemaking, saying the Palestinian plight seeded other conflicts and poisoned public opinion throughout the region.
But Rice's request, which echoed a similar one made by Bush while in Jerusalem earlier in his trip, seemed a tall order. At her side, Saud said "I don't know what more outreach we can give the Israelis," he said, referring to an Arab peace plan and the sentiment in the region that Israel hasn't been meeting its obligations under the roadmap, and that the U.S. is too lenient on that point.
Saud said that Israel's continued Jewish settlement activity in the Palestinian territories "cast doubt on the seriousness of the negotiations."
Another prime topic of conversation between Bush and regional leaders during his eight-day trip has been Iran.
In a roundtable earlier in the day with a small group of reporters, Bush said he has faced persistent questions during his trip about a new U.S. intelligence estimate that Iran had abandoned a secret nuclear weapons program in 2003. That conclusion contradicted Bush's claim that Iran is actively pursuing nuclear weapons now and raised questions in the Mideast about U.S. intentions toward Iran.
The president said he made clear that the new finding was a judgment by independent intelligence agencies and that "all options are on the table for dealing with Iran." At the same time, he said he has told leaders — who want the U.S. to keep Tehran in check but are nervous about the impact of any military confrontation — that he wants a diplomatic solution.
Saud called Iran "a neighborly, important country in the region."
"We don't harbor any evil for Iran," he said in Arabic. "But we hope that Iran will respond to the demands of the international legitimacy at the U.N. and abide by (International Atomic Energy Agency) laws in its nuclear program and avoid escalation. Under any circumstance, escalation in the region is in nobody's interest."