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Rice Begins Middle East Tour in Jerusalem

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Debbie Elliott.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice embarked on a Middle East tour this weekend, but there are only limited expectations she can make progress in the search for peace between Israel and the Palestinians. On this trip, Rice will also be trying to drum up support for U.S. efforts in Iraq.

NPR's Michele Kelemen is traveling with the secretary and joins us from Jerusalem, the first stop on Rice's tour.

Michele, this seems like an awkward time for negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. The Palestinians have a government led by Hamas which the U.S. and Israel both consider a terrorist organization, and now the Palestinians are fighting among themselves.

MICHELE KELEMEN: That's right. And Secretary Rice said she didn't come here with any real proposal or plan. She said no plan can be made in America. So really these talks that she had tonight with Israeli officials and tomorrow with Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas are mainly a chance for her to test the waters.

With the Palestinians, it's especially complicated. The Israelis are very skeptical about Abbas's efforts to set up a national unity government with Hamas. The U.S. has been trying to embolden Abbas, but the Palestinians say the only way he can be emboldened is to show that he's delivering on the peace process.

So there's been all sorts of speculation about, you know, how the U.S. and Israel can try to accelerate the road map to a two-state solution, to give what both Rice and her Israeli counterpart, Tzipi Livni, have been talking about, a political horizon to the Palestinians, show that there's a real clear path to a Palestinian state.

This is the talk, but it's really all still in the early stages.

ELLIOTT: Now, over the past few days, the secretary has been facing questions also about U.S. intentions toward Iran, specifically after a U.S. attack on an Iranian office in Iraq. Has Rice had anything more to say about that on her current trip?

KELEMEN: Yes. She was asked about it on the plane but also in her brief appearance tonight with Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni. Rice said the U.S. is responding to Iranian activities, that the Iranians are threatening not just Iraq's government but also U.S. forces. So she said the U.S. is going to continue to go after what she called these Iranian networks in Iraq. And she said she thinks this can be done inside Iraq, though she wasn't ruling out any other options when she was asked specifically whether the U.S. would do any cross-border attacks.

ELLIOTT: Tomorrow Secretary Rice is scheduled to be in the West Bank. Where does she go from there?

KELEMEN: She's also visiting Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, and then stopping in a couple European capitols on the way home. And really, this part of it is going to be focused on Iraq, on building support for the president's Iraq strategy.

Secretary Rice keeps painting the Middle East as this battleground between moderates and extremists. She says this is the case in the Palestinian territories, in Lebanon and in Iraq. And the U.S. officials seem to be banking on this idea that these Arab states fear Iran's influence, not only in Iraq but also in Iran supporting extremists elsewhere in the Middle East, that this fear of Iran can somehow be a glue binding these Arab states together. That seems to be at least the policy that she's pursuing.

ELLIOTT: Michele, before we let you go, I'd like to ask you about this flap that has been reported between Secretary Rice and Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer. When Secretary Rice was testifying during a Senate hearing this past week, Senator Boxer told her that neither of them would pay a personal price for the war in Iraq, that she, Senator Boxer, did not have children or grandchildren in the military and that Secretary Rice had no immediate family.

Ms. Rice then later suggested in a New York Times interview that Senator Boxer had dealt a blow to feminism by highlighting Ms. Rice's single status. Has there been any further clarification of this?

KELEMEN: Well, she was asked about this again and her answer was, well, being a single woman doesn't make me incapable of understanding the sacrifices in Iraq, that she's been visiting soldiers and families and it's something we all feel personally.

It was interesting because Tzipi Livni, the Israeli foreign minister who does have children, came to her rescue and she said that in her talks, Rice showed a lot of feelings about what's happening in Iraq. These are clearly two women that have some personal connections.

ELLIOTT: NPR's Michele Kelemen in Jerusalem. Thank you.

KELEMEN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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United States & World Morning EditionAll Things Considered
NPR National Correspondent Debbie Elliott can be heard telling stories from her native South. She covers the latest news and politics, and is attuned to the region's rich culture and history.
Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.