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(photo credit: Ahmad Gharabli [file])
Defense Minister Ehud Barak greeted US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Wednesday with something he has adamantly been opposed to over the past few months: the lifting of a number of West Bank roadblocks.
According to his office, Barak said Israel would lift the roadblocks to ease movement for the Palestinians. After these roadblocks were lifted, he said, the defense establishment would consider gradually lifting other roadblocks and checkpoints.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has been pressing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert for months to lift roadblocks; each time Olmert has said he would check with the defense establishment, only to be told they were working on a plan and did not yet think the time was ripe.
Wednesday's decision was viewed in part as an attempt to mollify Rice, who was widely expected to prod Israel into being more forthcoming toward the Palestinians on a number of issues to ensure both the convening and success of an international meeting on the Middle East in the US later this year.
Barak also said the defense establishment would consider the deployment of PA police in "one or two" of the West Bank cities, as well as the possibility of increasing security cooperation between Israel and the PA.
Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi also took part in the meeting and briefed Rice on the security situation.
Rice, who held a joint press conference with Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni shortly after her arrival, made no announcement regarding the date, venue or possible participants of the planned international meeting.
Asked why the US had not endorsed the idea of Syrian participation at the meeting, Rice replied, "We haven't invited anyone yet, so I am not going to address the issue of participation until we address the issue of participation."
Rice arrived Wednesday afternoon, and immediately held separate talks with Livni, Barak, Vice Premier Haim Ramon and Likud chairman Binyamin Netanyahu. She then held a private dinner meeting with Olmert. No details of her meeting with Olmert were disclosed.
She is slated to meet President Shimon Peres Thursday morning, followed by a trip to Ramallah for a meeting with Abbas, and then another meeting with Olmert.
Netanyahu, according to his office, told Rice that Israel "learned the hard way that we cannot put our security in other's hands."
Diplomatic officials said neither Rice nor the Israelis were overly worried about PA threats to ask for a postponement of the meeting, saying this was largely domestic Palestinian political posturing.
There was, however, genuine concern in Jerusalem that the Saudis might not attend the conference unless a document that they were satisfied with was drafted beforehand and discussed at the gathering.
Israeli officials also expressed concern that the US would push Israel to make some concessions on the so-called fundamental issues - Jerusalem, borders and refugees - to bring the Saudis to the meeting. The Saudis have said they would not attend if the meeting did not deal with substantive issues.
Rice, en route to Israel from the US, said she expected the meeting to address "critical" issues, adding: "I mean, the idea that somehow the president of the United States would call an international meeting so we can all have a photo op I think is just very far-fetched."
Israel and the PA were "showing good faith" in their discussions, she said at the press conference. The talks were "getting even broader and deeper," she added.
Rice said that while negotiations with the Palestinians were the focus of her talks with Livni, they also discussed Iran. She said US President George W. Bush was committed to the diplomatic track in dealing with Iran "because we believe it will work." At the same time, she said, Bush never took "any of his options off the table." For the diplomatic approach to work, Rice added, in reference to sanctions against Iran, it "needs to have teeth."
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