Rice to return to Mideast negotiations Saturday

Condoleezza Rice
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Friday at the Asian summit in Kuala Lumpur that she will be returning to the Middle East but gave no exact date for the trip.Andy Wong / AP
/ Source: NBC News and news services

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will resume her Middle East shuttle diplomacy on Saturday when she travels to Jerusalem, President Bush announced Friday.

Rice's two top Middle East advisors have been in Israel since Thursday in non-stop meetings to lay the groundwork for further talks, NBC News’ Andrea Mitchell reported.

“I do think it is important that groundwork be laid so I can make the most of whatever time I can spend there,” Rice told a news conference at a conference on Asian issues. “Let me be very clear. I am going to return to the Middle East. The question is when is it right for me to return.”

Her spokesman, Adam Ereli, took issue with an assertion by Israel’s Justice Minister Haim Ramon, who said the failure of world leaders to call for an immediate cease-fire at a summit in Rome gave Israel a green light to carry on with its campaign to crush Hezbollah.

“Any such statement is outrageous,” Ereli said. “The United States is sparing no effort to bring a durable and lasting end to this conflict.”

Rice also said, “I think everybody in Rome agreed that we can’t return to the circumstances that led us to this in the first place.”

Pushing back
The United States, adopting a diplomatic stance that has not been embraced by allies, has been insisting that any cease-fire to the violence over the last three weeks must come with conditions to address long-standing regional disputes. That, she has said, will ensure a durable solution.

Nearly every U.S. ally has called for a quick truce to end the bloodshed and efforts to smooth needed humanitarian supplies to the Lebanese. They believe the difficult work solving of old grievances between Hezbollah and Israel can come later.

White House spokesman Tony Snow said the administration would “push back” against criticism of the United States.

Rice has spent three days dashing to high-stakes meetings in Beirut, Jerusalem, the West Bank and Rome, and then traveled to Malaysia on Thursday for the long-planned conference of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Her comments did not make clear if she was returning to the region this weekend, while she is her current trip, although it is clearly the hope of her diplomatic entourage.

At her news conference Friday, Rice said that before returning to the region, she wanted to confer with Elliot Abrams and David Welch, her U.S. envoys who arrived in Jerusalem on Thursday afternoon. Because of the time zone disparity, she said, they were just beginning their day’s work.

‘Tremendous concern’
Rice got an exceptional — but not unusual — welcome during her stop in Israel this week. But she has faced a series of difficult sessions with world leaders elsewhere who take exception with the course the U.S. is charting in the conflict on the Lebanese-Israeli border.

Sitting beside Malaysian Foreign Minister Syed Hamid Albar at the news conference, Rice said, “I recognize the tremendous concern that the Malaysian government and other governments here have about the unfolding situation in the Middle East.”

“We all are concerned about the humanitarian situation there and want to see as early an end to the conflict as possible,” she added. “Whole generations have grown up there without the prospect for peace.”

Asked what she hoped to accomplish when she does return to the region, Rice said, “We hope to achieve an early end to this violence, that’s what we hope to achieve.”

“That means that we have to help the parties establish conditions that will make it possible for an early cease-fire that, nonetheless, does not return us to the status quo.”

She said the terms and conditions of a such a cease-fire would involve “a multinational force under U.N. supervision” that would have a mandate to enforce a peace agreement.

“So, many of the elements are there” for such an arrangement, Rice added. “There is no doubt in my mind that we want to achieve this and achieve it as soon as possible.”