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(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
"The issue of [kidnapped IDF soldier] Gilad Shalit and his return is the key to the entire peace process," Defense Minister Amir Peretz said on Thursday during a joint press conference with visiting US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
Peretz said Israel would take steps to strengthen [PA Chairman Mahmoud] Abbas's position in his conflict with extremists.
"Obviously I believe that strengthening Abbas is an important part of promoting the peace process. However, the situation in the territories is very delicate, and we will have to wait and see how things develop," he said.
Olmert tells Rice Israel wants to boost Abbas
According to Peretz, who met Rice before talking to reporters, Israel should ease humanitarian conditions in the territories so long as it does not harm its security interests.
Along those lines, Israel agreed Thursday afternoon to open the Gaza-Egypt border crossing at regular intervals during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, a US State Department official said Thursday.
The crossing was opened Wednesday for the second time since Ramadan began late last month, while State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said Israel's decision to open it more regularly was a positive step.
"We are encouraged by this decision, the first toward restoration of normal operations at the crossing," said McCormack, who accompanied Rice during her trip to the region.
The Rafah border, Gaza's only passage to the outside world, has been largely closed for most of the past few months, adding to the difficult humanitarian conditions in the area.
Before meeting Peretz, Rice met with Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and updated her on her meetings in Saudi Arabia and Egypt.
The two also discussed US travel warnings to the region, specifically the State Department's recommendation not to visit Jerusalem. Rice promised to look into the matter, Israel Radio reported.