Rice prods Israelis, Palestinians to fulfill peace obligations

Date: 06-17-05

SHANNON, Ireland (AFP) - US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice headed to the Middle East bearing stern messages to Israel and the Palestinians to fulfill their peace obligations and work together on a landmark Israeli withdrawal from Gaza.

Rice was en route to the West Bank and Israel to start a six-day trip that will also take her to Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia before attending international conferences in Brussels and London.

The chief US diplomat was traveling to the region at the behest of President George W. Bush to help nail down details of Israel's plan to pull its troops from Gaza and parts of the West Bank starting in mid-August.

Rice said her main concern was coordination of what started out as a unilateral Israeli move, saying "six or seven" issues had to be made clear, including security, the handover to Palestinian institutions, distribution of assets and freedom of movement.

"There needs to be clarity between the two sides about what to expect," she told reporters aboard her plane. "That I think will lead to less confusion in what is likely to be under the best of circumstances a pretty complicated set of days."

But the secretary also expected the parties to live up to their obligations to make the pullout a success and move on to implement an internationally drafted "roadmap" to end nearly five years of bloodshed.

She praised the Palestinians for making a start in streamlining and professionalizing their security services, saying, "I think they are making progress on that."

But she added, "In terms of their ability to fight terror, what they do on a day to day basis, frankly I do think more can be done."

"I'm certainly going to talk with President (Mahmud) Abbas about the need for the Palestinians to play a critical role in providing a secure environment in which the Gaza disengagement can take place," Rice said.

"Obviously that means that the calm he has discussed with the various Palestinian factions is going to have to hold."

She also called on the Palestinians to end "revolving-door arrests" of militants and deal with the stockpiling of weapons by the militant group Hamas.

"I think we have to be concerned about the amassing of arms, absolutely," Rice said.

But Rice also had tough words for Israeli plans to expand Jewish settlements east of Jerusalem that have drawn vocal protests from the Palestinians.

"We don't intend that the Israelis try to create facts on the ground," she said. "They simply cannot engage in activities that are supposed to somehow prejudge a final status outcome."

She reiterated the US view that final negotiations on a Palestinian state, as provided in the roadmap, would have to take into account "certain realities" since the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.

"But it will still have to be a negotiation," Rice said. "Any changes are going to have to be mutually agreed, and I'll make those points clear again to the Israelis."

Rice said she spoke early Friday with her counterparts from the "quartet" of powers seeking Middle East peace: the United Nations, European Union and Russia. She said they would likely meet in London outside a Group of Eight conference.

The secretary was due in the West Bank town of Ramallah for talks with Abbas before heading to Jerusalem to see Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and other Israeli officials.

Abbas, who met with Bush at the White House last month, has been pressing for reassurances that Gaza was not the ultimate concession by Israel and the roadmap process would go forward afterward.

Rice said "we've been clear with the Israelis that it cannot be Gaza only, that there has to be a day after the successful withdrawal from the Gaza." But she stressed the current focus had to be on the pullout.

"I really do not want to get the discussions distracted about what happens after the Gaza withdrawal," she said. "I can't tell you how much I think this region has been bedeviled by a tendency to look so far ahead and not to concentrate what's right before you."

Rice said a successful Gaza handover would "lead to greater confidence between the parties, greater trust between the parties and, I believe, an ability to accelerate progress on the roadmap."

The trip was Rice's first big swing through the Middle East since becoming secretary of state in January. She made a brief stop in Israel and the West Bank in February and a lightning trip to Iraq in May.

Rice's talks in Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia were expected to focus on the Bush administration's drive for democratic reforms. She was to deliver a policy speech on the subject Monday in Cairo.

Rice will move on to Brussels on Wednesday for an international meeting co-sponsored with the European Union on boosting efforts to stabilize and rebuild Iraq.

She will wind up her trip in London to attend a ministerial meeting ahead of the Group of Eight summit in Gleneagles, Scotland on July 6-8. The meeting is expected to be dominated by aid to Africa.



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