JERUSALEM — U.S. 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. (Only if Secret Service protection is removed from you, Condi! - Tiger)
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.
The Bush administration wants 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 Saturday en route to Israel and the West Bank for weekend meetings. (Sounds just like Clinton, doesn't it? - Tiger)
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.
(In other words, Abbas is "America's" Terrorist and Olmert is a bad smelling, year old onion bagel - Tiger)
A gag order has been imposed on the Olmert case. But speaking to his Cabinet Sunday, Olmert said the case has unleashed a wave of "malicious and wicked" rumors and pledged to push forward with his agenda.
He also confirmed reports that he would meet with Abbas on Monday. The two leaders have set a year-end target for wrapping up a peace deal and meet regularly to assess progress.
Rice, who met with Olmert after arriving in Israel late Saturday, said it was too early for pessimism, despite a lack of obvious accomplishment in peace talks launched five months ago. (Ha! - hahahahaha, oh my! - Tiger)
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."
Rice met early Sunday with Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who oversees the checkpoint system. Israeli officials declined to release details on the talks.
Since the outbreak of Israeli-Palestinian fighting in 2000, Israel has covered the West Bank with hundreds of checkpoints, gates and earthen barriers that protect Jewish settlers in the West Bank and make it harder for militants to cross into Israel. Israel says the barriers are necessary for its security, but they have also stifled the Palestinian economy and caused widespread hardship to ordinary Palestinians.
("Oh Israel", they use the same logic here at home! Even though illegal immigrants bring murder, rape, and mayhem - it's good for the economy! - Tiger)
The World Bank warned last week that the limping Palestinian economy would contract unless Israel eased 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.
Speaking to reporters, Rice also addressed Palestinian concerns that Israel is undermining the work of ostensibly independent Palestinian security forces.
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 compromise Palestinian security forces, but Israel says Palestinian troops too often co-opt, rather than confront, militants. (They understand the THREAT, Condi - and YOU don't! - Tiger)
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.
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 settlement construction.
Israel is talking peace with Abbas while pursuing armed men and economic sanctions in the Gaza Strip, which has been ruled since June by Islamic Hamas militants who oppose Israel's existence. Militants routinely attack southern Israel from Gaza, and troops and militants were clashing early Sunday in southern Gaza.
A Gaza health official said a 36-year-old Palestinian civilian man was killed in the fighting.
... what cynicism! Bush wants his legacy, no matter how many Israeli lives it takes! - Tiger