Rice gets off beaten track of West Asia diplomacy

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JERUSALEM, Oct 16 (Reuters) US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will visit Bethlehem this week, getting off the beaten diplomatic track to try to convince Israelis and Palestinians Washington is serious about its push for peace.

While meeting top Israeli and Palestinian officials, Rice is also seeing ordinary citizens on both sides to try to quell skepticism about the Bush administration's commitment to West Asia peace after six years of what critics view as neglect.

''I wanted, in my own voice, to be able to say to as many people as possible, the United States sees the establishment of a Palestinian state ... as absolutely essential to the future of not just Palestinians and Israelis, but also to the West Asia, and indeed to American interests,'' she told reporters.

''The United States sees this as important from a geostrategic, diplomatic sense but also sees the human side of this,'' she later added. ''In the final analysis, it's about them.

It's about Israeli citizens and Palestinian citizens living without fear and living with a certain dignity.'' Rice came to the region to shuttle between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and to lay the groundwork for a peace conference the United States plans to host in Annapolis, Maryland this year.

Her trip to Bethlehem will include talks with members of Palestinian civil society -- typically academics, professionals and members of civic groups. She is holding similar meetings with Israelis and with religious figures.

''It's a recognition that the problems in Arab-Israeli peacemaking are at least as much political as they are diplomatic,'' Jon Alterman, an analyst at Washington's CSIS think tank, said of Rice reaching out to a wider circle. ''What concerns me about the Annapolis meeting is that neither leader has a consensus behind him to make far-reaching concessions.'' Rice has also met a wide array of Israeli politicians, including two prominent members of right-wing parties that are resistant to territorial compromises but whose support is vital to maintaining Olmert's coalition.

SHORING UP OLMERT Israeli political analysts see Rice's outreach as a way of shoring up Olmert's fragile goverment, which appears to be the Bush administration's best bet to make progress on peace in the US president's final 15 months in office.

Should Olmert's government fall, the resulting elections would put any peace effort on ice and any successor could be less interested pursuing such talks.

Bethlehem is a tourist destination for most foreigners but it can also provide a political education about life on the West Bank for the Palestinians who live in a town that is gradually being closed in by a high concrete wall.

Israel is building the barrier as a defence against suicide bombers from the West Bank. Palestinians complain the barrier is partly being built on their land and is further disrupting a social and economic fabric already ravaged by occupation.

Rice, the daughter and granddaughter of Christian clergymen, said she was looking forward to the visit -- her first to the birthplace of Jesus -- partly for personal reasons.

''I am, myself, deeply religious and so just the name is evocative in ways that I can hardly describe,'' she told US reporters. ''I think it'll be kind of emotional for me.'' REUTERS CS BST0520

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