Rice: Reach out to Isreal for peace

Published: Tuesday, January 15, 2008 at 2:55 p.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, January 15, 2008 at 2:55 p.m.

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia - Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Tuesday that Arab nations must do more to reach out to Israel, as a way to do their part to nudge a Mideast peace accord into being.

Rice spoke from Saudi Arabia, at the side of its foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, giving her words and the U.S. position more weight. President Bush, traveling through the Mideast for eight days in part to build support for the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, made the same request from Jerusalem earlier in his trip.

She stepped gingerly around the sensitive question of whether the outreach should include Arab countries establishing diplomatic relations with Israel, their historical enemy. The only Arab nations that now have relations with Israel are Jordan and Egypt.

"Diplomatic relations, of course, is another matter and undoubtedly down the road," Rice said. "We hope that as progress is made between Israelis and Palestinians that there will be more efforts, that there will be more opportunity for outreach. But this will move at different speeds for different countries, we understand that."

The president views the support of Arab neighbors as crucial to the ability of Palestinian leaders to strike and sustain a final peace deal with Israel, which Bush wants done by the end of the year. He also sees Arab acknowledgment of Israel's place in the region as vital to the process.

But the U.S. request seemed a tall order. At Rice's side, Saud said "I don't know what more outreach we can give the Israelis," he said, referring to an Arab peace plan and the sentiment in the region that Israel hasn't been meeting its obligations under an internationally sponsored roadmap, and that the U.S. is too lenient on that point.

Saud said that Israel's continued Jewish settlement activity in the Palestinian territories "cast doubt on the seriousness of the negotiations."

Another prime topic of conversation between Bush and regional leaders during his eight-day trip has been Iran.

In a roundtable earlier in the day with a small group of reporters, Bush said he has faced persistent questions during his trip about a new U.S. intelligence estimate that Iran had abandoned a secret nuclear weapons program in 2003. That conclusion contradicted Bush's claim that Iran is actively pursuing nuclear weapons now.

The president said he made clear that "all options are on the table for dealing with Iran." At the same time, he said he has told leaders of Sunni Arab allies who want the U.S. to keep Shiite Iran's ambitions in check but are nervous about the impact of any military confrontation that he wants a diplomatic solution.

Saud called Iran "a neighborly, important country in the region."

"We don't harbor any evil for Iran," he said in Arabic. "But we hope that Iran will respond to the demands of the international legitimacy at the U.N. and abide by (International Atomic Energy Agency) laws in its nuclear program and avoid escalation. Under any circumstance, escalation in the region is in nobody's interest."

The president spoke to reporters in an ornate room of the guest palace in this kingdom which holds the world's largest supply of oil. With oil prices having surpassed $100 a barrel this month, Bush urged OPEC nations to put more oil on the world market. He said he would make the request personally when he met later with Saudi King Abdullah.

The Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, which accounts for about 40 percent of the world's needs, next meets Feb. 1 in Vienna, Austria, to consider increasing output.

"When consumers have less purchasing power because of high prices of gasoline in other words, when it affects their families it could cause this economy to slow down," Bush said. "I hope that OPEC, if possible, understands that if they could put more supply on the market it would be helpful."

Shortly after Bush spoke, the Saudi oil minister said the kingdom, a key player in OPEC, would raise oil production when the market justified it.

Bush also issued a stern warning to Iran days after a Jan. 6 confrontation with U.S. warships in the Persian Gulf. He said his decision to impose "serious consequences" will be the same whether an attack against an American vessel resulted from an order by the government in Tehran or a rash decision by an Iranian boat captain.

"It's not going to matter who made the decision," Bush said. "If they hit our ships, we will hold Iran responsible."

U.S. officials claim Iranian speedboats swarmed and threatened three Navy warships in the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow waterway that is the only entry and exit to the Persian Gulf. Iran has denied that its boats threatened the U.S. vessels, saying the incident, which ended peacefully, was a normal occurrence.

Bush said it would be up to the captains of the American ships to determine if their vessels are in jeopardy from Iranian boats and "there's no time to be spending a lot time on the phone trying to figure out what to do."

"Whoever ... is in control of these boats, best be careful," he said of the Iranians.

On oil, Bush acknowledged that there is little excess capacity in the marketplace, with many oil-producing countries already operating "full-out."

And he said a growing demand for oil, especially from fast-growing India and China, is helping to strain supply and lift prices. Many economists agree, saying that oil prices may not fall much even if Saudi Arabia and other OPEC countries raise production.

Asked whether he thought the U.S. economy was sliding toward recession, as some economists predict, Bush said, "These are times of economic uncertainty, but I have confidence in the future." Bush's administration and Congress are looking at ways, such as tax cuts, tax rebates or other incentives, to give the economy a boost but he declined to discuss specifics. "I'm going to watch very carefully," he said.

Rice appeared with Saud after making a quick departure from Bush's side to go to Iraq, slipping away from the Saudi capital at 6:40 a.m. Tuesday and returning in time for dinner. Bush said he decided to send her but not go himself because he had been encouraged by signs of legislative progress in Baghdad and thought she could "help push the momentum by her very presence."

In Baghdad, Rice congratulated the prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, on the passage of U.S.-sought legislation that reinstates former Saddam Hussein loyalists to government jobs and pushed for progress on other benchmark laws. At a news conference there, she said political progress has moved along "quite remarkably" and shows that last year's increase of U.S. troops in the country was paying dividends.

Bush said he has made broader Arab participation in Mideast peace a key element of his trip. "Part of my mission was to make clear that one reason why the talks failed in the past is that there wasn't participation by the neighbors," Bush said.

He said he was convinced that the Arab leaders want to see the creation of a Palestinian state in a peace agreement with Israel. But, he said Abdullah asked him why he was so optimistic. "They wanted to make sure that the efforts by the United States were real," the president said.

Earlier, Bush met with Saudi business owners and visited al-Murabba Palace and The National Museum.

He ended the day by riding out into the desert to the king's weekend retreat, an excursion that repays the visits that the king, while crown prince, made to Bush's Texas ranch in 2002 and 2005. At the farm where 260 Arabian horses are kept in air-conditioned stables, Bush was treated to a trainer parading sleek horses around a showing ring. And he wore a full-length fur-lined robe to dinner, with a sweater vest underneath against the cold temperatures.

The president was spending the night at the ranch and having breakfast with the king before leaving for Egypt.

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