MIDDLE EAST Rice and Sharon meet, discuss peace

The secretary of state is scheduled to meet with Palestinian leaders today.
JERUSALEM -- Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, on her first trip to the Middle East as the top U.S. diplomat, met Sunday with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and said Israelis faced some "hard decisions" if they wanted to achieve peace with the Palestinians.
Rice called new momentum behind the peace process hopeful but also described it as a time of "great responsibility" to ensure that actions matched recent commitments.
The meeting with Sharon and senior Israeli officials, to be followed by talks with Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas and other leaders today in the West Bank city of Ramallah, are part of the Bush administration's pledge to be more involved in Middle East peace efforts during its second term. Rice arrived on the eve of a summit of Israeli and Palestinian leaders in Egypt on Tuesday. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Jordan's King Abdullah also are scheduled to attend the meeting.
"We will ask of our partners and our friends in Israel that Israel continue to make the hard decisions that must be taken in order to promote peace and the emergence of a democratic Palestinian state," Rice told reporters before meeting with the Israeli foreign minister, Silvan Shalom.
Sharon's spokesman Raanan Gissin described the discussions between Rice and Sharon as "a very good meeting," adding "we see eye to eye."
Rice indicated the United States would be prepared to provide monitors to coordinate a future cease-fire with both sides, especially to help deal with any new outbreak of violence by extremists intent on unraveling peace efforts.
"If there can be a period of calm in which there is not fighting, the most important elements will be to have some monitoring of that situation," Rice said in an interview with CNN.
In an interview with Israeli Channel 2 television, Rice said she is exploring the capabilities of the State Department and other U.S. agencies to determine "how we will help the process forward, how we will monitor, how we will help with coordination."
Monitoring history
The last U.S. monitoring effort was largely a failure and provided little incentive for either side to meet its obligations. The team ceased work altogether in October 2003 after three U.S. security guards were killed by a roadside bomb that exploded under their car in the Gaza Strip. The U.S. government prohibited its diplomats and other officials from entering Gaza and severely restricted travel in the West Bank.
But Rice said the United States would be "very actively involved" to stabilize the situation on the ground and help train Palestinian security forces to be able to "actually fight terror."
Pressed on whether that meant putting U.S. personnel on the ground, Rice said she meant "putting people there or working with people who can go there frequently to help the parties keep moving along."
U.S. officials also said the Bush administration is prepared to help coordinate if and when Israel withdraws soldiers and Jewish setters from Gaza, which Sharon has said will start this summer.
The timing of Rice's comments is significant, because Israeli and Palestinian officials have said the summit Tuesday could lay the groundwork for an eventual cease-fire.
"I think what we're going to see in [Egypt] is a unilateral declaration on both sides which will amount eventually to a cease-fire," Gissin, Sharon's spokesman, said.

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