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Middle East: Abbas, Sharon Accept Invitations To White House

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (file photo) 7 February 2005 -- U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said in Tel Aviv today that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian Authority President Mahmud Abbas have accepted separate invitations to visit the White House in the spring. On her first foreign tour as top U.S. diplomat, Rice also announced that the United States has appointed an army general as a security coordinator for the Middle East.

Rice announced the acceptance by the two leaders to visit the White House at Tel Aviv's airport just before leaving Israel.

"I conveyed invitations from President Bush to Prime Minister Sharon and to President Abbas for meetings with him in the spring, and each has accepted," Rice said. "King Abdullah of Jordan will also visit the United States in March."

She offered no details on the U.S. invitations, but U.S. officials said they were issued for separate visits, news agencies reported.

Rice announced earlier that the United States has chosen army Lieutenant General William Ward as Mideast security coordinator, with a mandate to help the Palestinian Authority in training and equiping its security forces.

In a joint news conference after meeting with Abbas, Rice announced that the U.S. government also will provide $40 million over the next four months in aid to the Palestinians for quality-of-life improvements.

"I am happy to announce today that over $40 million will be provided over the next 90 days in a 'quick action program' to make an immediate impact, an immediate positive impact, on the lives of the Palestinian people through, for example, job creation, private-sector development, and infrastructure development," Rice said.

Rice promised active U.S. involvement in the coming days in seeking peace in the Middle East.

A Palestinian reporter questioned the pledge of U.S. involvement, noting that neither Rice nor any other U.S. representative is scheduled to participate in tomorrow's summit in Egypt between Abbas and Sharon. Rice said in response that it is a desirable development for the Israelis and the Palestinians, as well as regional powers such as Egypt and Jordan, to act on their own. She said the depth of the U.S. commitment will be evident when it is needed.

Rice said the new U.S. security coordinator will help, but will not supplant, the direct efforts of Israel, the Palestinian Authority, and regional nations to deal with security issues.

"The idea [behind appointing a U.S. security coordinator] is to have someone who is responsible for helping the Palestinians in reform of their security forces, for helping with monitoring, and not to supplant the activities and the efforts of the parties," Rice said. "I do believe it is most important that the Israelis and Palestinians have security cooperation that is bilateral, that is strong, that is robust, that is dealing with most of the problems."

After meeting with Sharon in Jerusalem yesterday, Rice called on Palestinians and Israelis to stop acts that provoke violence.

This was Rice's first trip to the Middle East since she was sworn in as secretary of state last month. Her first stop in Israel was at Yad Vashem, the memorial for the 6 million Jews killed in the Nazi Holocaust of World War II.

(Compiled from wire service reports.)