Covering the Middle East
Rice pushes for peace progress; Israel denies hidden agenda
By ANNE GEARAN, AP Diplomatic Writer Sun May 4, 3:10 PM ET
JERUSALEM - Facing mounting Palestinian frustration at the pace of peace talks, the United States leaned on West Bank residents and stifle an already limping economy.on Sunday to lift restrictions that chafe
President Bush leaves office next year.did not directly criticize close U.S. ally Israel, but had unusually direct remarks about the consequences of Israeli housing and roadblocks in the West Bank. Palestinian claims that Israel is deliberately expanding Jewish settlements on land the Palestinians claim for a state have dampened the high hopes for a peace deal before
Asked about settlements, Rice said she "continues to raise with the Israelis the importance of creating an atmosphere that is conducive to negotiations."
"That means doing nothing, certainly, that would suggest that there is any prejudicing of the final terms," of a deal setting up a separate Palestinian state in the West Bank, Rice continued. "The United States will consider nothing that is done to have prejudiced the final status negotiations."
Rice emphasized that a year-end goal for an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal is still achievable, even though both sides question whether the target is realistic.
Both sides face new obstacles unrelated to the substance of peacemaking. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has become the subject of a new police investigation, the fifth since he took office two years ago., 73, underwent an unannounced heart test last week, raising new questions about his health and the lack of a clear succession plan within the moderate West bank government he leads.
A gag order has been imposed on the Olmert case. But speaking to his Cabinet on Sunday, Olmert said the case has unleashed a wave of "malicious and wicked" rumors and pledged to push forward with his agenda.
He also confirmed reports that he would meet with Abbas on Monday. The two leaders meet regularly to assess progress.
Abbas has sounded increasingly pessimistic. He accusesof undermining talks by continuing to build Jewish settlements on lands the Palestinians claim for a future state, and refusing to remove hundreds of military checkpoints that dot the West Bank.
The Bush administration is serving as a proctor for the first direct high-level peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians since talks broke down amid violence more than seven years ago. The closed-door talks have yielded no obvious successes, although all sides say the atmosphere is good.
Rice shuttled between Israel and the West Bank, passing red-roofed Jewish settlements and illegal outposts as she went, to prod progress ahead of Bush's commemorative visit to Israel later in May. He is marking the 60th anniversary of the Jewish state, which has rankled some Palestinians who say the United States is too close to Israel to act as an honest broker. Bush will not venture next door to the Israeli-occupied West Bank, as he did during his first visit to Israel as president in January.
Israel isn't trying to expand Jewish housing to effect a land grab before an eventual military withdrawal, the country's senior diplomat said.
"I can assure you Israel has no hidden agenda," Foreign Ministersaid.
Livni pointed to Israel's 2005 withdrawal from the Gaza Strip as proof that Jewish settlements "are not obstacles" if the government decides it has a larger aim of peace or political settlement with the Palestinians.
Livni is leading settlement talks for Israel. She spoke between meetings with Rice, including a joint session with the Palestinians' lead negotiator.
In the West Bank, Rice said Israeli gestures in the West Bank must have a "real effect" on the lives of people there. "We are trying to look not just at quantity, but also quality of improvements."
Israel maintains hundreds of roadblocks and checkpoints throughout the West Bank, saying they are needed to protect settlements and prevent would-be attackers from crossing into Israel. The Palestinians claim the travel restrictions have stifled their economy and made free movement in an area they claim for their independent state extremely difficult.
Rice said she had discussed the lifting of Israeli roadblocks, but did not say Israel made her any new promises. When Rice visited in March, Israel promised to remove 61 roadblocks. The United Nations reported that only 44 have been dismantled, and most of them had no or little significance.
"It was the first time that I had raised this issue, and so it will be now a discussion as to how to carry out that concern, or how to address that concern," Rice said.
At the same time, she acknowledged there is a "real security dimension" for the Israelis.
There was one suicide bombing last year and there have been two suicide bombings this year so far, one in Dimona and the other a few days ago at the Kerem Shalom crossing. That's down from a high of 59 in 2002, the year Israel began building a separation barrier through the West Bank and multiplying its military checkpoints and roadblocks.And here is today's story from the Jerusalem Post, the center-right Israeli daily.
Peace process expected to freeze until PM's fate cleared
There is unlikely to be any progress in Israeli-Palestinian talks until the political uncertainty created by the latest investigation of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is cleared up, senior government officials said Sunday after US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice held talks with both Israeli and Palestinian leaders.
"Their head is not into it right now," one official said of Olmert and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who would take over from Olmert if he had to temporarily step down. "They have no patience for this right now."
The official said that what Israel and the Palestinian Authority had achieved in their discussions up until now was where things would likely remain until the political uncertainty in Jerusalem was lifted.
An aide to PA President Mahmoud Abbas was also skeptical about achieving a breakthrough in the wake of the new scandal, details of which are covered by a court-ordered gag order.
"Olmert is facing many problems at home," he said. "We doubt if he would be able to focus on the peace talks while he's being interrogated by the police. Obviously, he has been weakened by the latest affair."
Despite the new political uncertainty in Israel, Rice held a full day of talks Sunday in Jerusalem and Ramallah.
At a press conference with Livni after their meeting, Rice said the investigation was an "internal matter for Israel," and that she intended to continue moving forward on the Annapolis process.
Olmert, meanwhile, made his first public statement about the investigation Sunday, saying on camera before the weekly cabinet meeting that "the country has been swept with a wave of rumors regarding the investigation." Olmert said that once "matters are made clear," everything will be put into its proper proportion and context and "that this will put an end to the rumors."
Until then, Olmert told the ministers, business would proceed as usual and he would "continue to hold the meetings, carry out the responsibilities and do the things that I must."
As proof of this, Olmert mentioned that he had met with Rice Saturday night and that he was scheduled to meet her again Monday morning, followed by a lunch meeting with Abbas.
"We will continue to deal with the issues on the national agenda and see to matters of state," Olmert said.
Livni also related to the investigation during her press conference with Rice. Livni pointedly said nothing about Olmert, only that she believed in the absolute separation of powers when it came to enforcing the law.
"The only right thing to do at this stage is to let those investigating and enforcing the law do their work," she said. While saying she had "full confidence" in the country's law enforcement apparatus, she did not say anything about the prime minister.
"We are gathered here with the secretary of state within the framework of the discussions that I am holding [with the Palestinians], which is what I am dealing with and will continue to deal with in the coming days. At this stage, I have nothing to add, and it would not be right to add anything else," she said.
The Prime Minister's Office, meanwhile, canceled Yom Ha'atzmaut interviews that were scheduled for Monday with Israel Radio, Army Radio and Ynet.
The Prime Minister's Office said the interviews had been canceled because of the gag order on details of the investigation, and the inability of the PMO to expect that the media would not ask questions on the matter.
Earlier Sunday, Rice met with Defense Minister Ehud Barak, and then together with Barak and PA Prime Minister Salaam Fayad to discuss Israel's roadblock obligations and what could be done to improve life for the Palestinians.
She then went to Ramallah and met with Abbas, followed by a return trip to Jerusalem and an hour-long meeting with Livni. Rice then held a trilateral meeting with Livni and chief PA negotiator Ahmed Qurei for 90 minutes to discuss the status of the negotiations on a "shelf agreement" - that is, one that would only be implemented when certain conditions were met - for a Palestinian state.
In the evening, Rice met again with Barak, who, according to Israeli diplomatic sources, she believes holds the key to removing West Bank roadblocks and dismantling illegal settlement outposts.
Rice's Monday morning meeting with Olmert will be her last before heading back to Washington. Olmert and Abbas are scheduled to meet after her departure.
PA officials, meanwhile, said after Rice's meeting with Abbas that the gap between the Palestinians and the Israelis remained as wide as ever.
"US efforts to achieve peace are continuing, but what is needed is more than an effort," said Nabil Abu Rudaineh, spokesman for the PA presidency. "What is needed is American pressure on Israel to implement the road map, especially with regards to halting construction in the settlements and removing checkpoints [in the West Bank]."
Abbas told reporters after the meeting that the road map, the Arab League peace initiative and US President George W. Bush's vision for peace in the Middle East formed the basis for solving all the final-status issues, ending the occupation and establishing an independent Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital alongside Israel.
"We stressed during the meeting the need to halt settlement activities, including so-called natural growth, the removal of the settlement outposts, reopening closed PLO institutions in Jerusalem, lifting all the checkpoints and barriers, releasing all the prisoners and allowing deportees to return to their homes," Abbas said. "Both the Israelis and the Palestinians are racing against time in the peace talks. The negotiations are taking place almost every hour and every day and everyone is serious about them."
Abbas expressed hope that the two sides would reach an agreement before the end of the year, although he did not rule out the possibility that the talks could fail. The PA, he said, wanted an agreement on all the stalled issues.
"If we can't reach an agreement, we must think about the next step," he added. "But for now, we don't want to think about failure, which is also possible."
Abbas said his security forces were determined to impose law and order in the West Bank and warned that anyone who tried to hinder their efforts would be held accountable.
He also expressed hope that Egypt's efforts to achieve a cease-fire between Israel and the Palestinians would succeed.
Abbas urged Hamas to end its "coup" in the Gaza Strip, saying he was prepared to hold early parliamentary and presidential elections to resolve the crisis.
Rice said at a joint press conference with Abbas that she still believed that an Israeli-Palestinian peace treaty was possible in 2008.
"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," she said.
Rice criticized Israel's settlement policy as "particularly problematic to the atmosphere of trust that is needed." She added that she was pressing Israel to ease restrictions imposed on the Palestinians' movement, and urged the PA to increase its efforts to restore law and order and meet Israeli security demands.
But Rice's optimism did not appear to be shared by most of Abbas's top aides.
"It's unrealistic to talk about a peace treaty this year," one aide said. "We haven't seen real changes in the Israeli policy."