Rice says progress at hand on Gaza, but leaves without new promises
JERUSALEM – Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice brought the “weight of the United States” to bear on fragile talks over Israel’s handover of the Gaza Strip to the Palestinians, but she won no new commitments during a fresh round of shuttle diplomacy.”There are discussions, meetings, going on between the two sides and I think they’re making some progress,” Rice said after lengthy meetings Saturday with Palestinian leaders.”I think we can close many of these issues very expeditiously with enough will and perhaps a change in view here or change in view there,” Rice said in the West Bank city of Ramallah, where Palestinians have their headquarters.The chief U.S. diplomat met separately with Israeli and Palestinian leaders over three days – the third time that has happened since she took over at the State Department in January.Israel plans to begin withdrawing troops from the impoverished seaside territory in mid-August. Jewish settlers who do not leave voluntarily will be evicted.With less than a month to go, Palestinians say Israel has failed to give any assurance it will allow free passage of goods and people into Gaza, which Israel borders on two sides.Several other issues are unresolved and probably will linger through the period of the Israeli pullback.Israel has held the Gaza territory for three decades. Under an international blueprint for peace, the land would become part of an eventual independent Palestinian state.Palestinians say the Bush administration is not using its position to demand that Israel, which receives more than $2 billion a year in U.S. aid, provide specifics on border access and other matters.Rice could threaten, for example, to condition some aid on Israel’s performance in maintaining easily accessible borders, said Diana Buttu, a legal adviser and spokeswoman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.”She has incredible power and the incredible ability to change Israeli policies,” Buttu said. “That leverage, that ability to influence, is not being exerted in its full force. We’re hoping to see more.”U.S. officials say that is not Rice’s job.The U.S. has no formal role in the Gaza pullout plan, but it has tried to help guide the process. Washington is Israel’s closest ally and has been more involved than anyone outside the region in the long road toward brokering peace among Israel and its Arab neighbors.”The Palestinians need answers from the Israelis and the Israelis need answers from the Palestinians,” Rice said. “We are talking to both parties. That’s why I’m here … to help bring the weight of the United States.”Israelis and Palestinians are meeting regularly to prepare for the withdrawal. Jewish settlers who see the land as part of Israel’s birthright oppose the pullout. It is viewed with skepticism by many Palestinians who say Israel never will fully relinquish control.Among the practical questions are what to do with the remains of Israeli houses and commercial greenhouses the settlers will leave behind. A broader issue is how Palestinians will travel and conduct business between Gaza and the larger, separate West Bank territory.Rice kept her Middle East schedule open to allow for as much shuttle diplomacy as needed, or perhaps a three-way meeting with Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.She saw Israeli officials before and after the visit to Ramallah.On a side trip, Rice visited Lebanon, where elections have diminished Syrian political influence and car-bomb attacks have targeted politicians and others.A small bomb went off in Beirut, the Lebanese capital, hours after Rice left on Friday. Much larger and deadlier bombings followed in Egypt.”There needs to be a different kind of condition here in the Middle East so that extremism doesn’t flourish,” Rice said in Ramallah.Rice was generous in her praise for Abbas, who took over as Palestinian leader in elections following the death of Yasser Arafat, whom President Bush shunned.She commended the Palestinians for “ongoing efforts to enforce the rule of law in the West Bank and in Gaza.” That was a reference to recent clashes between Palestinian police and gunmen from the militant group Hamas. The U.S. lists Hamas as a terrorist organization.