Mon, May 05, 2008 - Page 6 News List

Rice heads to Israel to ask for removal of barriers


US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said she will ask Israel to remove more physical barriers erected in the West Bank as a bulwark against Palestinian militants.

In a busy day yesterday, Rice was scheduled to hold a series of meetings with Israeli and Palestinian leaders, including three-way sessions with the Israeli foreign minister and the Palestinians’ chief negotiator, and another with Israel’s defense minister and the Palestinian prime minister.

The Bush administration also would like to see speedier progress toward a political settlement between Israel and the Palestinians, a goal of US President George W. Bush in his final year in office, Rice said on Saturday en route to Israel and the West Bank for weekend meetings.

Rice’s visit coincides with new doubts about the viability of both Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Abbas’ unannounced heart test last week injected new uncertainty into peacemaking, and Olmert has become the subject of yet another police investigation.

A statement from Olmert’s office said the probe involved campaign donations from a US citizen before he became prime minister in 2006.

Bush’s top diplomat, who met with Olmert after arriving in Israel late on Saturday, said it was too early for pessimism, despite a lack of obvious accomplishment in peace talks launched five months ago.

Rice suggested she would lean on Israel to yank West Bank roadblocks that Abbas says strangle the Palestinian economy.

“I understand that everyone — President Abbas, I, the president, would like to see things move more quickly,” Rice said. “That’s why we keep coming and pressing all the parties to meet their obligations.”

Palestinians complain that Israel has played bait-and-switch — removing tiny barriers and calling them roadblocks or only partially dismantling obstacles after pledging to pull them down.

Rice said she would question the “qualitative character” of some roadblocks Israel has already removed.

“Not all roadblocks are created equal,” Rice said with a wry smile. “We don’t want to get into a numbers game where you just remove X number of roadblocks but it’s not improving the lives of the Palestinians.”

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