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Rice Pressures Palestinians, Israelis to Talk

Secretary of State urges the two sides to focus on the Gaza withdrawal and not get distracted by problems linked to a future separate nation.

June 19, 2005|Tyler Marshall and Ken Ellingwood | Times Staff Writers

RAMALLAH, West Bank — Conveying a growing sense of urgency, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Saturday called on Palestinians and Israelis to intensify contacts in order to resolve issues vital to an orderly Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip.

"There is no more time to simply put problems on the agenda," she said at a news conference after talks with Palestinian leaders, including Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. "This now has to be an active process of resolving these problems."

Rice is scheduled to discuss the Gaza pullout today with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and senior members of his government.

She also reiterated earlier comments about the importance of making a success of the Gaza withdrawal to re-energize a long-dormant American-backed peace plan. The plan seeks to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through the creation of an independent Palestinian state.

"Both parties will have to do their part if there is to be an orderly withdrawal," she said. "So the coordinating function is absolutely critical."

Rice's comments reflected concern within the Bush administration over the lack of cooperation between Palestinians and Israelis on the withdrawal, which has been delayed once and is scheduled to start in mid-August, less than 60 days from now. Israel has occupied Gaza since the 1967 Middle East War.

She urged the two sides not to get distracted by problems linked to the final status of a future Palestinian state, but to concentrate solely on achieving an orderly transition of power in Gaza.

Former World Bank President James Wolfensohn is working with both sides on the economic development of a Palestinian-controlled Gaza. U.S. Army Lt. Gen. William Ward is assisting Palestinian efforts to build a more effective security force that could control armed militants. Progress has reportedly been slow on both fronts.

Standing next to Rice at the news conference, Abbas pledged "full coordination with the Israeli side" to ensure a complete withdrawal from the Gaza Strip.

He said the Palestinian leadership remained intent on preventing militant attacks on Israelis. The region has a seen a drop in violence since a February summit in Egypt, when Abbas and Sharon announced that each side would refrain from attacks on the other. A month later, Abbas persuaded the main Palestinian militant groups to agree to observe calm.

The Palestinian leader complained about what he called Israeli violations of the cease-fire, including fatal shootings by soldiers. Israel says the Palestinians have done too little to clamp down on fighters and that its forces have foiled numerous bomb attacks since March. Militants have fired rockets and mortar rounds into Jewish communities in and around the Gaza Strip in response to what they call instances of Israeli aggression.

The Israeli army said Saturday that troops killed a Palestinian man and wounded another who had opened fire on a military outpost in the Gaza Strip. An army spokeswoman said three men fired shots from outside a fence surrounding the Jewish settlement Kfar Darom. The third attacker escaped.

The Palestinians also want Israel to hand over control of Gaza's border crossings when it leaves, and to allow passage for Palestinians between the West Bank and Gaza. In addition, they want to build a seaport and reopen an airport that was closed after fighting broke out in September 2000.

Abbas also called for Israel to pull its forces from West Bank towns and release more Palestinian prisoners. Israel has fulfilled its pledge, made at the Feb. 8 summit, to free 900 jailed Palestinians, but Palestinian officials say many were near the end of their terms.

Israel promised to give the Palestinians security responsibilities over five towns in the West Bank, but stopped after the hand-over in two, saying Abbas needed to do more to rein in militants.

Rice's contention that a successful Gaza withdrawal would provide the best chance to revitalize the so-called road map peace plan reflects a significant gap between the Bush administration and Sharon's government. The Israeli leader has consistently played down any direct link between the peace plan and his government's unilateral decision to pull out of Gaza and four small West Bank settlements.

Sharon has tried to damp expectations of immediate additional steps toward a final agreement. So far, he has given no hint of backing away from comments made nine months ago that the Gaza disengagement could be followed by "a long period in which nothing else will happen."

As Rice conferred with Palestinian leaders, the Palestinian legislature ended months of wrangling by approving an election law that clears the way for balloting to pick a new parliament.

According to the law, parliament will be expanded from 88 to 132 seats. Half will be elected from geographic districts and half from party lists.

Speaker Rouhi Fatouh said the parliamentary election would probably take place early next year. But a date has not been set.

Elections had been scheduled for July 17, but Abbas postponed them, angering leaders of the Hamas militant group. Hamas did well in several rounds of municipal balloting and plans to challenge Abbas' Fatah organization in the legislative race.

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