Rice seeks Mideast peace progress by Bush May trip

( Reuter )- U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice travels to the Middle East this weekend to gauge what progress, if any, can be made on Israeli-Palestinian peace before President George W. Bush's expected visit in May.

Bush has little to show four months after announcing with fanfare in Annapolis, Maryland, that the Palestinians and Israelis would resume peace talks and try to reach an agreement on Palestinian statehood before he leaves office next year.

The White House said on Thursday Bush had invited Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to Washington for talks in early May in what appeared to be a sign that Bush wants to quicken the pace of the diplomacy.

Political negotiations have begun between Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert as well as among their subordinates but nothing tangible has emerged in public to suggest headway.

There also has been little progress from a parallel push to get both sides to take steps on the ground to make Israel more secure from Palestinian violence and to ease the lot of Palestinians who grapple with hundreds of checkpoints, roadblocks and other barriers in the West Bank.

Looming over the entire effort is the split among the Palestinians between the Fatah movement, which holds sway over the West Bank, and Hamas, which seized control of the Gaza Strip by force last year and is officially committed to the destruction of Israel.

Two weeks ago Rice said neither Israel nor the Palestinians had done "nearly enough" to carry out the 2003 "road map" peace plan under which Israel is required to halt all settlement activity and uproot Jewish outposts and the Palestinians to rein in militants.

"One of the things the secretary is going to try to figure out is ... what progress can be made, what visible progress, particularly, can be made" in the six weeks before Bush's expected visit to Israel to mark the 60th anniversary of its founding, said a senior Bush administration official.

Rice leaves on Friday for Israel, where she will meet Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak. She also plans to see Abbas in Jordan.

Because of his influence over Israeli deployments in the West Bank, Barak, who tried and failed to achieve a peace deal when he was prime minister in 2000, is a key factor in determining what progress on the ground is possible.

This week, the Israeli Defense Ministry said it would allow up to 600 members of a Palestinian security force trained in Jordan to be deployed in Jenin, a West Bank city long viewed by Israel as a hub of militant activity.

Palestinian forces originally began patrolling West Bank and Gaza towns under the 1993 Oslo peace deal but were forced off the streets after the start of the violent uprising in 2000 when Israeli troops retook security control of the cities.

In November, Palestinian forces deployed in the larger West Bank city of Nablus as part of Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad's law-and-order campaign.

"The secretary has had a number of conversations with Barak ... about the need to allow those men to deploy (and) the need to address movement and access," the senior U.S. official said. "One of the most important conversations she'll have is the one with Barak about what progress we're going to see there.

"If Nablus is no longer unique and if you had a deployment in Jenin and everybody agreed ... is working, it's obvious that you'd then, I think, plan for future deployments," he said.

However, he suggested little progress is likely in the near term on relaxing Israel's network of checkpoints on the West Bank, which are a source of deep resentment among Palestinians and have a crippling effect on the Palestinian economy.

"Barak has been very cautious about that and so has the secretary because if you make a mistake and there is a significant suicide bombing, you are really going to set the clock back," he said. "So nobody is pushing the Israelis to take undue risks. What we are asking about is a reassessment ... the question really is how many of them could be safely removed or limited in their impact?"

A senior Arab diplomat said Bush's peace effort had to show some signs of movement soon or both sides would lose heart.

"For Annapolis to have any credibility whatsoever, come May we will have to show some positive evidence of progress both on the political as well as the real-life issues ... or people will start losing hope in the process," the diplomat said.

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