US diplomats lay groundwork ahead of sticky Rice visit to Israel

Date: 06-17-05

JERUSALEM (AFP) - US officials were laying the groundwork for Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's weekend visit to the region which is awaited with some apprehension by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

Two senior American envoys, David Welch and Elliot Abrams, were meeting with Sharon's chief advisors Dov Weisglass and Shalom Turjeman as well as his national security advisor Giora Eiland to finalise preparations and the agenda for her trip, US diplomatic sources said Friday.

Rice is due to arrive in Israel on Saturday although the first part of her schedule is to be dominated by talks with Palestinian leaders in Ramallah. She will meet Sharon and other Israeli officials on Sunday.

Her visit will be one of the last opportunities for Sharon to discuss with the administration of US President George W. Bush his hugely controversial plan to pull out of the Gaza Strip later this year.

US sources said the so-called disengagement plan would top the agenda, in particular coordination between the Israelis and the Palestinians and security.

Bush has been a staunch supporter of the withdrawal from Gaza which is due to begin in mid-August.

However Rice is also expected to use her visit to pressure Sharon to make more confidence-building gestures towards the moderate Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas, such as implementing an agreement reached at a summit in February to hand over security responsibility in West Bank cities.

The top-selling Yediot Aharonot daily said there was some fear among the Israelis that Sharon could be pressured into making concessions as a trade-off for securing European Union aid for Iraq.

"Rice is a great friend of Israel, yet nevertheless her visit has aroused apprehensions in Jerusalem," the paper said.

The Palestinians will use their own sessions with Rice on Saturday to urge her to pressure Sharon on a range of issues such as prisoners and settlements.

Ahmed Majdalani, a Palestinian cabinet minister without portfolio, said it was in Washington's interests to halt Israel's settlement activity in the West Bank and construction of a separation barrier across the territory.

"These issues are the main obstacles to the realisation of President Bush's two-state vision," he told AFP.

Majdalani said the Palestinians were more hopeful of help from the Americans than in the past. While Bush completely boycotted the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, he held talks with Abbas at the White House only three weeks ago.

Prisoner affairs minister Sufian Abu Zaydeh said Washington must press Sharon to release more of the estimated 7,000 Palestinians behind Israeli bars.

"The Americans must understand that this is not a secondary issue but is of vital importance for the Palestinian side," he said.

Another awkward topic expected to feature in Rice's talks with the Israelis is a spat over arms sales to China.

Ahead of her departure from Washington, Rice indicated her unhappiness with the Israelis over their transfer of military equipment and technology to China despite rounds of what she called "very difficult discussions."

Rice reiterated Washington's "rising concern" about China's military buildup and said Israel "has a responsibility to be sensitive to that, particularly given the close defence cooperation between Israel and the United States."

A senior Israeli source acknowledged that discussions on the subject could be heated.

"We don't expect too much pressure from the Americans with the regard to the Palestinians even if there are disagreements on certain points, but there are worries on the question of China," he told AFP.



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