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Two-state Mideast solution in jeopardy, Rice warns

WASHINGTON - Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said yesterday that a "two-state solution" in the Middle East is in jeopardy and described a narrow window of opportunity to push Israel and the Palestinians toward peace.

In a House hearing interrupted by antiwar protesters, Rice said an upcoming peace conference in Annapolis, Md., is needed to give hope to moderate Palestinian forces. She blamed Iran for fanning flames in the region, including what she called "troubling" new support for Hamas militants.

"Our concern is growing that without a serious political prospect for the Palestinians that gives to moderate leaders a horizon that they can show to their people that indeed there is a two-state solution that is possible, we will lose the window for a two-state solution," Rice said.

Despite protesters' effort to focus on the war, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Iran dominated the hearing. Representative Tom Lantos, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, asked whether the Bush administration is doing enough to pressure Egypt to crack down on Hamas sympathizers, and whether Bush is calling for the peace conference to salvage his political legacy.

Rice dismissed suggestions that the conference is a political ploy.

"There are probably easier foreign policy tasks to take on than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict," she said.

The conference has not been scheduled, but should occur by year's end, she said.

The State Department announced yesterday that Rice will return to Israel and the West Bank early next month for more talks ahead of the peace conference. The trip will be her second to the region inside a month.

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