By Chief foreign affairs correspondent
NBC News
updated 2/8/2005 7:45:53 PM ET 2005-02-09T00:45:53

As the cease-fire between the Israelis and Palestinians was being announced in Egypt, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was arriving in France, which has led Europe's opposition to President Bush’s foreign policy for the last four years.

Tuesday’s summit marks the first time the Middle East — not Iraq — has been a top Bush administration priority, as the new secretary of state spent the last two days pressuring first Israel and then the Palestinians to reach agreement.

"This is a time of opportunity, and we must not lose it," Rice told an audience at Science Politique, a French school of political science. "I urge them to build on this momentum, to seize this chance."

America's closest ally, Britain's Prime Minister Tony Blair, has been pleading with the White House for years to push harder for Middle East peace. Arab leaders, such as Jordan's King Abdullah, repeatedly warned that nothing could be accomplished without American leadership.

So why the sudden shift?

"You have a new Palestinian leadership that is devoted to a peaceful resolution of the conflict," says Rice.

In other words, the United States says Yasser Arafat had been the obstacle for years. At the same time, the administration now realizes that it needs Europe to help stabilize Iraq — and that is unlikely unless the United States takes steps to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.

"The Americans are doing what the Europeans have asked them to do during the last four years," says Dominique Moisi, a senior adviser at the French Institute for International Relations. "Maybe the Europeans and particularly the French can move in the direction of America in Iraq."

Europe also is a key player because it, along with Arab states, finances the Palestinian government, which is broke. The United States, which gives far less to the Palestinians, wants Europe to continue to carry that burden.

Many experts say with the administration now showing it cares about the critical Israeli-Palestinian issue, it could pave the way for diplomatic progress on Iraq, Iran and other disputes.

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