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(photo credit: AP)
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice arrived in Israel Sunday and spent more of her first day trying to bridge gaps between ministers inside Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's government than narrowing differences between Israel and the Palestinians.
She heard an earful of concerns during the day from Defense Minister Ehud Barak (Labor) and Industry and Trade Minister Eli Yishai (Shas).
Barak said Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas had so far been unable to deploy 500 policemen in Nablus in the daytime to take over some of the security responsibilities there, as was agreed upon during Rice's last visit in September. Yishai said Abbas only had control of a segment of the Palestinian population.
Rice is likely to hear more of the same tomorrow, when she meets Strategic Affairs Minister Avigdor Lieberman (Israel Beiteinu).
Olmert, in what his advisers described as a cordial, positive meeting with Rice, updated her on his talks with Abbas and stressed Israel had no intention of abandoning the road map, which calls for a set of sequential steps before final-status negotiations begin.
According to the sources, Olmert had stated clearly that the joint statement Israel and the Palestinians were formulating before the planned US-sponsored Middle East meeting in November would address the core issues, and that a Palestinian state was a fait accompli.
At the same time, the officials said, Olmert wanted it understood that while it might be possible to arrive at a joint statement and negotiate core issues with the Palestinians, agreements would only be implemented once the obligations of the road map - including the requirement that the Palestinians uproot terrorist infrastructure - were fulfilled.
In addition to meeting Olmert, Barak and Yishai on the first day of a planned four-day visit to the area, Rice also met with Finance Minister Ronnie Bar-On and National Infrastructures Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer. In the evening, she met PA Prime Minister Salaam Fayad and was scheduled to meet with Abbas in Ramallah on Monday.
Barak, according to his office, told Rice the IDF's freedom of action in the West Bank was a fundamental principle that Israel would demand in the future as well. His comment came amid increased Palestinian requests that Israel reduce the IDF presence in the West Bank.
Barak also informed Rice of a Defense Ministry decision to remove some of the permanent roadblocks in the West Bank, although the ministry did not specify which ones.
Barak met Rice for more than two hours on the eve of his first visit to Washington as defense minister, with 90 minutes of the meeting behind closed doors. He left for the US on Sunday evening.
Yishai - one of the most skeptical ministers regarding the current diplomatic process, along with Lieberman - said he told Rice, "Any agreement signed now [with Abbas] will not succeed, because the PA has two heads."
While he respected Rice's efforts, Yishai said, "the Israeli public feels that from summit to summit, the concessions only grow. If at the end of the conference, matters of consequence are decided, it could shake and threaten the government. I say this as someone who thinks that we have to reach peace."
Yishai said only economic steps could stabilize the PA. "I am ready to meet with my Palestinian counterpart and help, but they must end the incitement in the schools," he said.
Yishai also said Jerusalem must be taken off the agenda. According to Yishai's office, Rice responded that the "time has come to deal with issues that we were afraid to touch for many years."
Before Rice began her meetings in Jerusalem, Olmert announced at the weekly cabinet meeting his decision to make Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni the head of the team negotiating the joint declaration with the Palestinians.
This was widely seen in Jerusalem as a move motivated by both politics and diplomacy. On the diplomatic level, Livni has developed a close working relationship with Rice over the last year, and on the political level, she is believed to be more acceptable to Shas, Israel Beiteinu and even Barak than the other likely candidate for the job, Vice Premier Haim Ramon.
Olmert said he had made the decision over the weekend on the recommendation of his chief of staff, Yoram Turbowicz, who until Sunday had headed the team. Turbowicz, Olmert said, felt it was necessary to have someone in a ministerial position lead the Israeli team, since Ahmed Qurei, a former PA prime minister, was heading up the Palestinian delegation.
Barak, who reportedly has worked behind the scenes to keep Ramon from having too large a role in the negotiations, praised the Livni appointment in his meeting with Rice.
Rice, who arrived in Israel from Russia, said on the flight over that she did not believe her visit would produce the joint Israel-Palestinian statement or bring it to a point where invitations for the conference could be issued.
"I don't expect out of these meetings that there will be any particular outcome in the sense of breakthroughs on the document," she told reporters on her plane.
At the same time, she urged Israel not to do anything that could threaten the conference. The warning followed Israel's expropriation of land just east of Jerusalem for a network of roads to create Palestinian contiguity between the Ramallah and Bethlehem areas.
"We have to be very careful, as we are trying to move toward the establishment of a Palestinian state, of actions and statements that erode confidence in the parties' commitment to a two-state solution," Rice said.
"Even if the intentions are good and even if the actual events on the ground are intended to produce a certain kind of outcome, this is a very delicate time," she said. "It's just a time to be extremely careful." Gil Hoffman contributed to this report.