WASHINGTON (AFP) — US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice leaves Monday on a new mission to the Middle East as fresh violence between Israel and Hamas militants has placed the teetering peace process in peril.
She faces an uphill task. After an Israeli incursion into Gaza on Saturday, senior Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat said the Middle East peace talks revived in November in the US town of Annapolis had now been destroyed.
"The negotiations are buried under the houses that were destroyed in Gaza," Erakat said. "The peace process has been destroyed because of the aggressions and the crimes that have been committed."
A member of the office of Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas told AFP the talks were now suspended. "The president decided to suspend the negotiations as a protest to the Israeli aggression," he said, declining to be named.
Rice is expected to arrive in Cairo on Tuesday for talks with Egyptian leaders on the situation in the Gaza Strip which has been under an Israeli land and air blitz in a bid to stop rocket fire into Israel.
Israeli forces killed at least 61 Palestinians in a major assault on the Hamas-held Gaza Strip on Saturday, medics said.
Rice is then due to visit Ramallah and Jerusalem for talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders and to take the pulse of talks relaunched amid much fanfare in November at the US-sponsored conference in Annapolis, Maryland.
The top US diplomat then travels to Brussels for NATO ministerial talks which are set to be dominated by Afghanistan and Kosovo.
But the signs are bleak, as earlier optimism of creating a Palestinian state alongside Israel by the end of 2008 evaporates.
Arab League secretary general Amr Moussa recently warned the Annapolis accords were under threat of collapse, and the Palestinian government has accused Israel of trying to scupper the process by relaunching several controversial settlement projects.
"By pursuing its settlement projects Israel is shunning its responsibility to hold serious negotiations and is thus torpedoing the points agreed at Annapolis," Abbas's spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeina told AFP.
Even Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert remains skeptical.
"We have a desire to reach an agreement within the year 2008. But I am not sure we will make it," Olmert said on a visit to Tokyo.
There have been calls for Rice to become personally more involved in the peace process, such as by Jordan's King Abdullah II.
"Time is running out and we need the United States of America completely involved, to influence the course of discussions, monitor progress, and help bridge the gaps to ensure a final agreement by the end of 2008," the king said Friday in a speech to Princeton University.
Scott Lasensky, an expert on the Middle East at the United States Institute of Peace, agrees.
"We are too absent. On the ground, we do not seem to be offering useful ideas to resolve the Gaza situation. And then, at the highest levels, in terms of diplomacy and negotiations, we are not even in the room."
Rice, who has so far been reluctant to take control of talks preferring to leave the negotiations to the Israeli and Palestinian teams, ripostes regularly that her predecessors failed in the Middle East and she has her own methods.
But Lasensky says she is ignoring one of the most basic lessons of the trail of broken Middle East peace accords.
"One of the most important lessons from the past negotiations is that Israelis and Palestinians cannot be left on their own because there are too many asymetries of power. It just does not work," he said.
In the Annapolis conference "there were some good hopes and there were some good ideas. But they are not following through what they committed to do," he added.
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