(AMMAR AWAD ~ Associated Press)
JERUSALEM -- Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice explored opportunities Saturday for a fresh start in the stalled effort at a political compromise between Israel and the Palestinians. At the start of a weeklong trip to the region, she warned that an enduring peace cannot be stamped "made in America."
Rice said she did not carry a specific plan and she tried to lower expectations for quick changes. Any progress would require political risk-taking from weakened Israeli and Palestinian leaders, and some resolution to escalating divides in the Palestinian ranks.
One idea on the table is a bold stroke -- sketching the rough outlines of an eventual Palestinian state even though that day is far off. Other approaches include finding ways to speed up elements of an existing U.S.-backed peace plan.
"This is a very important and challenging time in the Middle East, but a time that I believe does have promise if we exercise our responsibilities with creativity and with resolve," Rice said before an evening meeting with Israel's foreign minister, Tzipi Livni.
Her references were to new strategies and the underlying commitment to freeze the ruling Islamic Palestinian Hamas faction and others she branded extremists, bent on denying peace and democracy to the rest of the Middle East.
"We are determined to resist their efforts, but also to strengthen the hands of those who wish to resist their efforts," Rice said.
The United States wants to move more swiftly to shore up Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. He is in a power struggle with Hamas and grasping for ways to demonstrate progress. Abbas has told U.S. diplomats he needs to offer Palestinians a vision of a political future that makes the frustrating effort to seek peace with Israel seem worthwhile.
To reward Abbas for standing firm against Hamas, the Bush administration soon will ask Congress to approve $85 million to train and equip Abbas' security forces. Israel supports the plan.
"Part of our responsibility is to give the moderate Palestinians a political horizon while providing the Israelis security," Livni said.
Ahead of Rice's visit to Jerusalem and the Palestinian-controlled West Bank, Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas contended Saturday that Israel and the United States were trying to fan the flames of a Palestinian civil war.
Rice also is promoting President Bush's new strategy for the Iraq war to sometimes skeptical Arab allies and asking those nations to do more to help the struggling government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
Rice plans to see leaders of Jordan, home to 700,000 Iraq refugees, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait in the coming days, along with diplomats from Persian Gulf states whose governments generally are friendly to Washington.
Most of the Arab states with the most at stake if Iraq falls apart are also those pressing the U.S. to do more to reinvigorate the stalled Arab-Israeli peace process. Several of those Sunni states are alarmed by the rise of Shiite Iranian influence in Iraq and elsewhere.
Although Rice seemed eager to switch focus from Iraq, the Israeli-Palestinian problems may prove equally difficult.
"I'm not coming with a proposal. I'm not coming with a plan," Rice told reporters on the way to the region. She said two things are always true about Middle East peace efforts.
"If you don't lay the groundwork very well, then it's not going to succeed," Rice said. "And I think no plan can be made in America. There are too many important stakeholders and any progress on the Palestinian-Israeli front is going to require all of the parties."
U.S officials are dismayed at the yearlong drift in peace efforts since Hamas won parliamentary elections and now controls the Palestinian Cabinet and Parliament.
Hamas refuses to renounce violence or recognize Israel, leading the West to cut off vital international aid.
Abbas was elected separately and retains his post, but he has limited power. He has been unable to negotiate a compromise unity government with Hamas, but he has improved his international standing.
The U.S. money for Abbas' security services would be a significant vote of confidence because those forces have a troubled history of corruption and rights violations under Abbas' predecessor, the late Yasser Arafat.
Hamas accuses Washington of trying to provoke a broader intra-Palestinian military confrontation between Hamas and Abbas' Fatah faction, and Hamas points to the money for arms as evidence. Rice stressed that the money would pay for training and other things apart from weaponry, and that it comes with strings attached.
The Palestinians' two main factions have been engaged in a violent power struggle that has claimed 35 lives in recent weeks, although there was reported progress Saturday in secret coalition talks between the two sides.
In the Palestinian-controlled Gaza Strip, Haniyeh called on Hamas and on Abbas' Fatah to halt the violent power struggle.
"Enough, I say enough," he said in a televised speech. "All forms of internal fighting must stop."
In Israel, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has been weakened by allegations of corruption and last summer's Lebanon war that many Israelis believed ultimately undermined their security.