Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

The Message Rice Will Bring, and Hear, in Her Mideast Trip ; the Secretary of State Will Press for Democratic Reform, amid Rising Unrest in Region

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

The Message Rice Will Bring, and Hear, in Her Mideast Trip ; the Secretary of State Will Press for Democratic Reform, amid Rising Unrest in Region

Article excerpt

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice heads to the Middle East Friday with the region's political and economic reform her focus, but a promising spring is giving way to what threatens to be a torpid summer for democracy's advance.

Some see Secretary Rice's visit as coming none too soon. March's optimism on Lebanon has given way to postelection fears of rising factionalism. Egypt has openly rebuked reformist forces, and tensions have risen as Israel moves toward disengagement from Gaza.

"We can't have episodic interest in the Middle East," says former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. She praises President Bush for frank rhetoric on Arab world freedom but prods the administration to be more active in promoting pro-democracy forces, and she adds that if anything, she would have "liked to see [Rice's trip] happen a little sooner."

The itinerary

Rice is scheduled to visit Jerusalem, Ramallah in the West Bank, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt, where she is expected to give a speech on freedom and democratic reform. The speech's intent of setting forth a liberty agenda for US policy in the region mirrors the secretary's well-received intervention in Paris in February. In that speech, Rice laid out America's aspirations in a second Bush term for revitalizing transatlantic relations. It set the stage for Mr. Bush's visit and for improving relations with European allies.

Rice hopes to have the same touch in the Middle East, though conditions are probably more daunting, with skepticism over America's pro-democracy intentions high because of Iraq, and with many reformers squeamish about a too-close association with the United States.

Before taking up the region's democratization overtly, Rice will meet with Israeli and Palestinian leaders. The secretary of State's engagement in the Israeli-Palestinian process is important because for many Arabs the conflict remains the key to unlocking reform pressures in the region.

With an eye on Israel's planned late-August pullout from Gaza, Rice will press Palestinians for more confidence-building security measures and Israelis to take further steps to ease Palestinian living conditions. She will also seek to convince Palestinians that the US sees what State Department spokesman Sean McCormack calls a "post-Gaza phase" to the peace process. …

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