United States Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Sunday pressed Israel to ease travel restrictions on Palestinians and called Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank ”particularly problematic”.
But she said Washington believed an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal was still possible before US President George Bush leaves office in January, praising the ”seriousness and depth” of negotiations.
”We continue to believe it is an achievable goal to have an agreement between the Palestinians and the Israelis by the end of the year and by the end of President Bush’s term,” Rice said after meeting Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah.
Negotiations on issues core to the Middle East conflict were launched at a US-hosted international conference in Annapolis, Maryland in November. Abbas, at a news conference with Rice, voiced his commitment to peace efforts.
But Israeli-Palestinian talks have been clouded by violence, primarily along the border of the Gaza Strip, which is now controlled by Abbas’s Islamist Hamas opponents, and by Israel’s expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, which Palestinians fear will deny them a viable state.
At the news conference, Rice said the United States regarded settlements as ”particularly problematic to the atmosphere of trust that is needed”.
A 2003 peace ”road map” requires Israel halt construction in the settlements.Israel says it will keep major settlement blocs under any peace deal — a plan tacitly endorsed by Bush in 2004 — and recently approved new housing projects in the enclaves.
”I can assure you that Israel has no hidden agenda,” Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni told reporters after later talks with Rice, in response to a question about the settlements.
Rice launched her latest two-day visit to the region on Saturday by saying she would assess Israel’s steps on the ground to see if they had improved the daily lives of the Palestinians. These include the promised removal of West Bank roadblocks.
Rice said she had raised the question, with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defence Minister Ehud Barak, of whether those roadblocks that are to be scrapped would have a significant effect on easing movement by Palestinians.
”We are trying to look not just at quantity, but also at quality of improvements,” said Rice, who also stressed that the Palestinians needed to take further action to meet the road map demand that anti-Israel militant groups be reined in.
After Rice’s last trip in late March, Israel said it planned to remove 61 barriers in the West Bank. But a UN survey subsequently found that only 44 obstacles had been scrapped — and that most of these were of little or no significance.
Western pressure is mounting on Olmert to do more to ease travel restrictions and take other steps to shore up Abbas, whose authority has been limited to the West Bank since Hamas seized control of the Gaza Strip in June.
Before her talks with Abbas, Rice met Barak in Jerusalem. He exerts great influence over Israel’s network of checkpoints and roadblocks in the West Bank.
Palestinians view the barriers as collective punishment and a blight on their economy. Israel argues it needs to keep many travel restrictions in place to prevent suicide bombings.
Rice met Olmert on Saturday night in Jerusalem. Olmert, in broadcast remarks on Sunday, gave no details of the discussions other than to say they were ”part of the (peace) effort, which we will not halt”.
Abbas and Olmert are due to meet on Monday after Rice leaves. – Reuters