Rice arrives in West Bank in first visit since Gaza seizure (video)

( AFP ) - US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice arrived on Thursday in Ramallah for talks with president Mahmud Abbas, her first trip to the Palestinian territory since Hamas seized control in Gaza.

She was to go straight into a meeting with prime minister Salam Fayyad, a US-educated economist widely respected in the West, before heading for talks with Abbas. Rice and Abbas were to hold a press conference after 0800 GMT.

"We do have in the Palestinian territories a government that is devoted to the international principles, the foundational principles for peace and this is an opportunity that should not be missed," Rice said ahead of her visit to Ramallah -- the seat of Abbas' internationally-backed government.

When Islamist Hamas wrested control of Gaza from Abbas' Fatah forces in mid-June, the president of the Palestinian Authority fired the Western-shunned group from the government and installed a new Cabinet in the West Bank.

"Ultimately, the Palestinian people will have to choose what kind of world they will live in, what kind of state they will have," said Rice, at the tail end of a four-day Middle East trip.

The tour was partly to lay the groundwork for an international peace conference that the United States will host the coming fall.

The chief US diplomat met Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and other officials in Jerusalem after arriving earlier Wednesday from Saudi Arabia.

While there, she managed to get a positive response from the Saudis regarding the international peace conference called for by US President George W. Bush.

"Should we get an invitation to attend the conference we will look at it very closely and very hard," Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal said at a news conference with Rice in Jeddah.

Saudi Arabia -- which does not have diplomatic ties with Israel -- has not attended peace talks involving the Jewish state for more than a decade.

US officials said they detected a new sense of hope in the region for the settlement of the Palestinian question, which has dogged Middle East security for decades.

"People do realise that there is an opportunity here and discussions now should take advantage of that and how to maximize the results," one senior US administration official said.

Pointing particularly to the Olmert-Rice meeting, he said it was encouraging, especially as "active preparations" were underway for a scheduled meeting between the Israeli leader and Abbas on Monday.

Rice is expected to discuss with Abbas the prospect of beefing up security for the Palestinians in the West Bank to counter Hamas and prepare for any Israeli withdrawal.

She may pressure Israel to ease the severe restrictions on the freedom of movement of Palestinians in the West Bank, Israeli officials said.

Rice and Abbas are scheduled to sign a "framework agreement for security assistance" on Thursday. This follows Washington's recent pledge of at least 86 million dollars (63 million euros) to boost the defense needs of the Palestinians, officials said.

"If you are looking at the bilateral track (the Israeli-Palestinian side of larger peace talks) we will be putting a lot of emphasis on what is functioning on the security side and how can we help," a US official said.

Other Palestinian concerns, such as release of tax arrears to the Palestinian leadership and easing of severe Israeli-imposed security restrictions, are also expected to be discussed, the official said.

Abbas received a boost this week when Moscow downgraded its contacts with Hamas, while maintaining some ties with the group to foster dialogue.

The decision came after Abbas met with Russian leader Vladimir Putin in Moscow which, according to a Russian official, has taken a dim view of Hamas's use of force to take control of Gaza.

A US official cited "very interesting" reports about the Abbas-Putin talks in an indication that Rice would be anxious to get details of the Moscow encounter from the Palestinian leader.

Rice travelled with Defense Secretary Robert Gates to the Middle East. They travelled together to Egypt and Saudi Arabia before splitting up: Gates went on to Kuwait, while Rice headed to Israel and the Palestinian territories.

Regional powerhouse Saudi Arabia said it would send a diplomatic mission to Baghdad to explore reopening its embassy. That would represent a significant boost of ties between the Sunni authorities in Riyadh and the Shiite-led government in Baghdad.

But the have Saudis rejected recent US criticism it was not doing enough to help stabilise Iraq.

It is the latest point of friction between the Sunni kingdom and the US despite Washington's planned 20-billion-dollar arms package to its ally to counter what the US sees as a growing threat from Shiite Iran.

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