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Rice In Search Of Mideast "Common Agenda"

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Sunday that it is important for Israel and the Palestinians to establish a "common agenda" to move forward on creating a Palestinian state, appearing to break ranks with Israel, which has ruled out peace talks for now.

For the fourth time in four months Rice is back in the Middle East, trying to do what she had been unable to do on the previous three visits: kick start a thoroughly stalled peace process, reports CBS News foreign correspondent Mark Phillips.

Secretary Rice's hope, she said, was not for what she called a 'big bang' breakthrough, but to prepare the ground.

All parties need to have a "destination in mind" to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Rice said in a joint news conference with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. But she conceded the sides were far apart and offered no specific proposal to get long-stalled peace talks moving again.

Abbas aides said the two also explored ways to get moderate Arab states involved in Israeli-Palestinian peace-making. A 2002 Arab peace initiative, which offers recognition of Israel in exchange for a withdrawal from all lands Israel occupied in the 1967 Mideast War, is to be revived at an Arab Summit next week.

In one proposal raised Sunday, a committee appointed at the summit would serve as a contact for the Quartet of Mideast mediators — the United States, the U.N., the EU and Russia — as well as Israel and the Palestinians.

Rice and Abbas held their first meeting since the Islamic militant Hamas and Abbas' more moderate Fatah Party formed a new coalition government last week.

While Rice was speaking of finding a resolution to the decades-old conflict, Israel has said it will not conduct peace talks with Abbas now that he has joined forces with Hamas.

Rice said she would meet twice with both Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert during her fourth trip to the region in as many months. "It's extremely important to establish a common agenda to move forward toward the establishment" of a Palestinian state, she said.

"I think it can help all of us to have a destination in mind," Rice said, but acknowledged that direct negotiations between the sides are unlikely in the current climate.

"I think this time it is best to talk about that political horizon in parallel. But I sincerely hope in the future the parties themselves can talk about the political horizon themselves," she said.

Rice met Olmert at his Jerusalem residence late Sunday. No details were available about the talks.

Abbas said he talked with Rice about holding more meetings with Olmert. "All these meetings are part of the bilateral relations with Israel and the future vision that we are all seeking and working toward," Abbas said.

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said Rice told Abbas that "the Israeli approach is not enough."

Earlier Sunday, Abbas met with U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon, who said the time is "not yet fully ripe" to meet with officials from the Islamic militant Hamas group. Ban met with non-Hamas members of the new coalition. Rice snubbed even U.S.-backed moderates in the Cabinet.

Hamas and Fatah have expressed hope their alliance would end international isolation of the previous hard-line Hamas government.

U.S. and European diplomats have held a stream of contacts with moderate members of the new coalition while avoiding Hamas ministers. Hamas has killed more than 250 Israelis in suicide bombings and refuses to recognize the Jewish state.

"At this time, I do not have plans to meet with Prime Minister Haniyeh or other Hamas Cabinet ministers," Ban said, expressing hope the new government's actions would "show a genuine commitment to the basic principles ... of peace."

The "Quartet" of Mideast peacemakers have demanded that Hamas renounce violence, recognize Israel, and accept past peace agreements.

Israel welcomed the decisions by Rice and Ban not to meet with Hamas officials.

"We are happy to see world leaders and prominent figures like the secretary general continuing to uphold the Quartet principles," said Eisin, the Israeli government spokeswoman.

The new government platform falls short of the conditions, though moderate Palestinians say it implicitly recognizes Israel by "respecting" peace agreements. Abbas, who hopes to restart peace talks with Israel, has said the deal is the best he can get from Hamas.

Palestinian officials rejected the notion of diplomatic cherry-picking.

"This government is one team," Information Minister Mustafa Barghouti said. "Whoever meets with one member is meeting with the whole government."

Ban's comments indicated the challenges the Palestinians still face in selling their government to the West.

With the exception of a senior Norwegian official, a stream of foreign officials in recent days has refused to meet with Hamas Cabinet members. And the withheld funding has not been restored.

Ban is scheduled to meet with Olmert on Monday. He said he would urge the Israeli leader to release frozen Palestinian funds, ease travel restrictions in Palestinian areas and halt settlement activity in the West Bank.

Ban and Rice are in the area ahead of the Arab Summit, which is to revive the 2002 peace plan. The proposal calls for full diplomatic relations between the entire Arab world and the Jewish state in exchange for full Israeli withdrawal from lands captured in the 1967 Mideast war.

Israel is cool to a full withdrawal. It also objects to the plan's apparent endorsement of the right of hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees and their descendants to return to properties in what is now Israel. The Israelis say a large-scale return of refugees would mean the end of the country's identity as a Jewish state.

Rice told reporters she would not seek changes in the Saudi plan, saying it is a matter for negotiations.

The U.N. chief started his day Sunday visiting the Aida refugee camp near the West Bank town of Bethlehem and inspecting Israel's separation barrier in the West Bank.

Israel says it built the enclosure to keep out Palestinian militants, who have killed hundreds of Israelis in bombing and shooting attacks. Palestinians oppose the route of the barrier, which places some 10 percent of the West Bank on the "Israeli" side.

"This has strengthened my resolve and commitment to work for peace in the Middle East," Ban said. "This is a very sad and tragic thing to see many suffering from the construction of this wall, depriving opportunities for basic living."

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