WASHINGTON, Dec 15 – As the Bush administration enters its final weeks, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was due in New York Monday in a bid to keep Mid-east peace talks on track and turn up the heat on Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe.,
During talks at the United Nations, Rice will also discuss how to tackle a surge in piracy off Somalia’s coast, check Iran’s nuclear ambitions, and deal with the fallout from the terrorist attacks in India, officials said.
Her two-day visit to the heart of world diplomacy highlights many of the daunting challenges President George W. Bush’s administration will hand over to Barack Obama’s when the White House switches occupants on January 20.
Palestinian-Israeli peace remains a priority for the Bush team, which hoped the parties could clinch a deal within a year when it revived the negotiations in Annapolis, Maryland in November last year, after a seven-year hiatus.
But it is now settling for just keeping the process going as Rice meets Monday with UN chief Ban Ki-moon, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana.
Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair was also due at the talks as the quartet’s envoy.
The United States, the United Nations, Russia and the European Union make up the Middle East quartet, which has endorsed a roadmap for a Palestinian state to coexist peacefully alongside a secure Israel.
Speaking to reporters on his way to Afghanistan late Sunday, Bush said that he saw "a way forward now" to resolve the Arab-Israeli dispute.
"The big sea change in the Middle East on this issue is that by far the majority of people recognize that the only way to peace is two states," Bush said. "And in 2001, that was not the case."
He noted that in 2001, most of the Israeli political class believed that greater Israel was the only way to have security and the Palestinian Authority could not deliver peace.
"So now you’ve got a Palestinian President who recognizes Israel’s right to exist, and a Israeli political class that says, if we want security, if we want peace, we’ve got to work for a Palestinian state," the president stressed. "So the framework is there."
A senior US official told reporters on condition of anonymity that the quartet meeting is an opportunity to "keep sustaining the momentum."
No tangible progress has been made on resolving the core issues of Jerusalem, the future borders of a Palestinian state and refugees since the Annapolis process was launched.
In closed-door consultations, Security Council envoys on Saturday weighed a US-Russian draft resolution to fully involve the Security Council at a crucial moment of transition in Middle East peacemaking.
And it welcomed the diplomatic quartet’s consideration, in consultation with the parties, of an international meeting on the Middle East in Moscow next year.
The 15-member UN Security Council was also due to hold a closed-door meeting on Zimbabwe as Rice, Bush and other leaders step up the pressure for Mugabe to step aside.
The United States blames Mugabe for Zimbabwe’s political deadlock, economic meltdown and humanitarian crisis, including a deadly cholera outbreak.
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said Washington has been talking to Zimbabwe’s powerful neighbour South Africa and other Security Council members about how to "start a process that will bring an end to the tragedy that is unfolding in Zimbabwe."
Countries with leverage should use it to press for change in Zimbabwe, McCormack said.
A senior US official, speaking on condition of anonymity, proposed Thursday that Zimbabwe’s neighbours, particularly South Africa, close their borders with the country.
McCormack said piracy will also be a hot topic as Somali pirates hold at least 17 ships, including an arms-laden Ukrainian cargo vessel and a Saudi super tanker carrying two million barrels of crude oil.
The United States has circulated a draft resolution allowing to chase offenders even on Somali soil, diplomats said.
McCormack said Rice will also likely discuss continuing efforts to stop Iran from enriching uranium, which Washington fears will be used toward building an atomic bomb rather than peaceful nuclear energy, as Tehran claims.
Rice will probably discuss the deadly attacks last month in Mumbai when she meets British Foreign Secretary David Miliband, McCormack added. "I’m sure that she will touch on the issues related to India and Pakistan."