Rice pointedly singles out Israel for the first time for failing to meet one of its Road Map obligations — on settlements

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the Muqata’a Presidential Compound in Ramallah at noon on Sunday.

The main message Rice heard from Palestinian officials was a demand, yet again, to put pressure on Israel to stop its settlement activities on occupied Palestinian land.

But this is one argument that seems to have been won in advance – though how much pressure will be put, and how effectively, remains in question.

In her opening statement at the press conference, Rice said, “It’s important to have an atmosphere of trust and confidence…Actions and announcements are having a negative effect.” She did not specify which actions, or which announcements, but from the apparently satisfied reactions of President Abbas and members of his team, it seems she was referring to something Israel had done or said.

No party should be taking steps to pre-judge the outcome of the negotiations, Rice said sternly. She added that the US will not consider such actions or announcements as influencing the final status negotiations between the parties, and that the solution will be achieved on the basis of UN Security Council resolutions 242 and 338.

However, in response to a question from a journalist, Rice indicated that the US would not support a draft resolution being discussed in the UN Security Council about the recent announcements of expansion in Ramat Shlomo and other settlements around Jerusalem. “My strong view,” Rice stated, “is that this is not an issue which will benefit from Security Council action.” She did say that she was concerned, in particular, about those outposts “which are illegal under Israeli law.”

As to what pressure she might put on Israeli officials to stop settlement activities, Rice explained that “the Israeli government is a sovereign government and taking its own decisions, but it is Israel that has a strong interest in building an atmosphere of confidence…and so it is in Israel’s interest to do everything it can to build confidence.”

While en route to the region, Rice was asked in an exchange with journalists on board her flight to Tel Aviv on Saturday evening: “Are you not annoyed that every time you go there, there is a new announcement of settlements, either just before you come or just after you leave?”

Rice replied: “Unfortunately, there have been a few whether I’m coming or not.. Look, it’s a problem. And I think it’s a problem that I’m going to address with the Israelis. And … as the President said today …it gives us every reason that we really ought to be determining the boundaries of the state, because what’s in Israel will be in Israel at that point, and what’s in Palestine will be in Palestine. And that’s the best way to resolve this, but you know, I repeat, we’ve talked a great deal about the importance of Roadmap obligations, and this one isn’t being met”.

Rice also said that she will be talking with Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad — “so I’ll also have an opportunity to talk about what is another track of Annapolis. The negotiations are one track, but the – improving the lives of the Palestinians and building the institutions of the Palestinian state is another track, and that’s the one in which I’m most involved with Prime Minister Fayyad”.

It appears that Rice will be having one “trilateral meeting” — apparently today, Sunday — with Rice meeting the heads of the two negotiating teams — Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi LIvni, and Palestinian former Prime Minister Ahmad Qurei (Abu Alaa).

Rice will have dinner on Sunday evening with embattled Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

A second “trilateral meeting” will be held on Monday, nvolving Fayyad and Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak — who, as Prime MInister Olmert has said, is in charge of the West Bank (and, from a distance, of Gaza).

This meeting with Barak and Fayyad will focus on “improvement of the lives of Palestinians” through greater ease in “movement and access”: On this point, however, Rice refused to be drawn into a pointed criticism of Israel for failing to meet another Road Map obligation. Instead, she said politely, more could be done in this regard.

“I do think that there are improvements in Jenin on all of the elements, improvements on security with the Palestinians having responsibilities there, improvements in terms of movement and access, and the beginnings of improvements in terms of the economic side. I am told that there are other areas where there have been some improvements in movement and access as well; for instance, you know rather than — more random stopping of vehicles rather than every vehicle, that kind of thing. But it’s not enough, and there certainly and clearly needs to be more. And I understand the security considerations as well as anyone, but the obligation was undertaken to improve the lives of Palestinians and we’re going to have to work very hard if we’re going to make that true in a broader sense”

But both problem areas — continued Israeli settlement building, and humiliating hindrances in movement — are equally pressing, and have an equally awful impact on the present and on the future in the occupied Palestinian territory.

In a situation in which there is a media black-out on the negotiations themselves, Rice nonetheless offered a glimpse into the current approach, in which she denied reports that she has suggested the two parties focus first on defining the borders: “Part of the difficulty in negotiations like this is that the issues are intertwined. You know, borders and security, issues concerning Jerusalem, and issues concerning borders, and issues concerning refugees — they’re all part — and by the way, not only the big four of final status, but also issues of state-to-state relations, issues of economic relations. They’re all very intertwined. And I believe the parties have adopted the right strategy here, which is that they work on all of them, recognizing that some may move more quickly than others, but also recognizing that nothing can be agreed till everything is agreed. And it’s just very difficult to imagine a circumstance under which you could separate somehow the border issue from these other important issues. That doesn’t mean that you can’t work on the border issue separate from the others, but it’s hard to imagine that you could really resolve it without dealing with the companion issues … I’ve encouraged the parties not to hesitate to push ahead if something is moving, but the idea that you could have a separate agreement, I think that just doesn’t make sense”.

Gaza was hardly mentioned in Rice’s discussion on Saturday with journalists en route to the region, except to say that “Everybody knows that the situation in Gaza is extremely difficult”, and “We all know what needs to happen in Gaza”.. Hamas, in Rice’s view, is ultimately responsible for all the problemsi n Gaza, and, she noted, Egypt is working hard to find a solution.

The solution, according to Rice is that: “The rocket fire needs to stop. There needs to be a more sustainable circumstance for the people of Gaza, meaning that there will need to be sustained openings of the crossings, enough at least to permit humanitarian conditions to – humanitarian needs to be met. And ultimately, I would hope that they can get back to something that looks more like the Movement and Access Agreement of November 2005, which everybody’s focused on as an endpoint”.

Gaza was also hardly mentioned in the Rice-Abbas press conference on Sunday. Abbas said something about hoping to reach an agreement “that will put an end to the suffering in the Gaza Strip”, and about re-gaining national unity “based on the Yemeni initiative that was adopted by the Arab summit in Damascus. If we succeed, it is quite important we regain national unity on the basis we have described”, he added.

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