US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice held talks with senior Israeli officials Wednesday to try to restore momentum to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
She came to Jerusalem from Saudi Arabia, where she obtained a qualified Saudi endorsement of the Middle East meeting the United States plans to host this autumn.
Rice's visit here is her first since the violent split in Palestinian ranks that left the militant Islamic Hamas movement in control of Gaza.
But as she began her meetings with Israel leaders, the Secretary called it a "time of opportunity" for peace-making, with a new moderate Palestinian government in control in the West Bank, and Arab allies of the United States seemingly receptive to President Bush's call last month for a Middle East conference.
At an upbeat joint press appearance with Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, Rice said that despite the situation in Gaza, the new Palestinian government and elected President Mahmoud Abbas have the international legitimacy to move toward a two-state settlement of the conflict.
"Ultimately the Palestinian people will have to choose what kind of world they will live in, what kind of state they will have. But as Minister Livni said, we do have in the Palestinian territories a government that is devoted to the international principles, the foundational principles for peace. And this is an opportunity that should not be missed. It's very clear that what happened in Gaza was against the legitimate institutions of the Palestinian people, the Palestinian authority."
Livni, for her part, said the government of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is not going to miss the chance to promote dialogue with President Abbas, suggesting also that progress in peace efforts need not await a resolution of the situation in Gaza.
"The implementation of any kind of understanding between Israel and the Palestinian government can be in accordance to the places and the territories in which there is effective government, which of course adopts and accepts not only the requirements of the international community, but the basic understanding with Israel. And I think it is for the Palestinians to choose what kind of future they want to reach, or what kind of hope that they want to send to their own children, so I believe this can also be an example, working with the government in places in which they have control."
Rice, who met Arab allies in earlier stops in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, is seeking to develop an agenda for the US-hosted regional meeting, which US officials say will probably occur no earlier than late October.
The secretary and her aides are encouraged by comments by Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal. He said at a news conference with Rice earlier Wednesday in Jeddah that this government would consider attending the conference.
"We are interested in a peace conference that deals with the substantive matters of peace, the issues of real substance and not for more non-substantive issues. If that does so, it becomes of great interest for Saudi Arabia. And should we then get an invitation from the Secretary to attend that conference, we will look very closely and very hard at attending a conference."
Both Rice and Livni said they were encouraged by the Saudi comments, though Livni suggested it might be counter-productive to force an early discussion of core issues of the Middle East dispute.The Secretary of State said she is not issuing conference invitations on her current trip and is more interested at this point in generating support for direct dialogue between Israel and the government of President Abbas, with whom she meets Thursday in Ramallah.