U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Saturday she will ask Israel to remove more physical barriers erected in the West Bank as a bulwark against Palestinian militants.
The Bush administration also would like to see speedier progress toward a political settlement between Israel and the Palestinians, a goal of President George W. Bush in his final year in office, Rice said en route to Israel and the West Bank for weekend meetings.
Rice touched down at Ben Gurion Airport late Saturday and headed directly to Jerusalem for dinner with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
Bush's top diplomat said it is too early for pessimism, despite a lack of obvious accomplishment in talks Bush began with lofty ideals five months ago. Rice suggested she will lean on Israel to yank West Bank roadblocks that Palestinian President Mahmoud 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."
'Not all roadblocks are created equal'
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 will 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."
Since the outbreak of Israeli-Palestinian fighting in 2000, Israel has covered the West Bank with a network of hundreds of checkpoints, gates and earthen barriers that protect Jewish settlers in the West Bank and make it harder for would-be terrorists to cross into Israel. Israel says the barriers are a necessary response to a security threat, but they have also stifled the Palestinian economy and caused widespread hardship to ordinary Palestinians.
The International Monetary Fund warned last month that the limping Palestinian economy would contract unless Israel eases restrictions on movement in the West Bank. Israel has removed some obstacles in recent weeks, but the report, citing U.N. figures, said that as of March, the overall number of obstacles had increased.
Series of meetings with both sides
In a busy day Sunday, 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. Olmert and Abbas are scheduled to meet Monday.
Rice has visited the region nearly every month since the formal launch of peace talks last year, nudging both sides but yielding no public breakthroughs so far.
Speaking to reporters, Rice also addressed Palestinian concerns that Israel is undermining the work of ostensibly independent Palestinian security forces.
The United States recognizes Israel's security concerns, but Bush and others have sent strong messages "that when the Palestinians deploy, and when you're trying to give responsibility to the Palestinians, it's important not to take steps that undermine their authority," Rice said.
Hundreds of flag-waving Palestinian troops took up positions in the West Bank town of Jenin on Saturday — part of Abbas' attempt to assert control in preparation for what he hopes will be an Israeli withdrawal. However, the Israeli military and Abbas sharply disagree over whether the Palestinian forces are ready to replace Israeli troops.
The deployment of the security forces is part of Palestinian commitments under a U.S.-backed peace plan. Abbas is to rein in and disarm militants, while Israel must freeze settlement expansion and remove dozens of illegal settlement outposts.
Israel issues construction bids
In violation of its commitment, Israel has issued construction bids for hundreds more homes in settlements since the relaunch of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks in November. It has also failed to remove the outposts. On Friday, the "Quartet" of Mideast peace mediators — the United States, Russia, European Union and United Nations — again demanded that Israel halt new settlement construction.
The city of Nablus, which several months ago became the test case for Abbas' forces, is still raided regularly by Israeli troops searching for fugitives. Palestinian officials say such raids undermine the Palestinian security forces, but Israel says Palestinian troops too often co-opt, rather than confront militants.
Jenin is the second town in which newly trained Palestinian troops were deployed in large numbers, and the city of Hebron is next.