US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice wound up a weekend trip to spur Israeli-Palestinian talks with a one-on-one meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert yesterday morning, and Olmert was scheduled to meet Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas later in the day.
An Olmert aide said no public statement was expected after his meeting with Rice, who at a news conference with Abbas on Sunday demanded that Israel do more to ease life for Palestinians in the West Bank by removing roadblocks.
Facing Palestinian frustration at the pace of the negotiations, Rice made unusually direct remarks on Sunday about the consequences of Israeli construction and roadblocks in the West Bank. Palestinian claims that Israel is deliberately expanding Jewish settlements on land the Palestinians want for a state have dampened hopes for a peace deal before US President George W. Bush leaves office in January.
Asked about settlements, Rice said she “continues to raise with the Israelis the importance of creating an atmosphere that is conducive to negotiations.”
The twin issues of settlements and roadblocks were likely to be on the agenda at the Olmert-Abbas meeting in Jerusalem.
“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 said.
Israel isn’t trying to expand settlements as land grab before an eventual withdrawal, the country’s senior diplomat said.
“I can assure you Israel has no hidden agenda,” Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said.
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 with the Palestinians. Israel dismantled 21 Jewish settlements in Gaza when it pulled out.
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.
Abbas has sounded increasingly pessimistic. He accuses Israel of undermining talks by continuing to build in 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 Jewish settlements and illegal outposts on the way, to prod for progress ahead of Bush’s visit to Israel later this month. He is marking the 60th anniversary of the Jewish state.