Rice: Joint document in Sep. unlikely

US Secy. of State lands in Israel to prod sides to find points of agreement; meets with Olmert, Livni.

rice desends the stairs 224 88 (photo credit: Matty Stern/US Embassy - Tel Aviv)
rice desends the stairs 224 88
(photo credit: Matty Stern/US Embassy - Tel Aviv)
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice arrived Monday for a 24-hour visit, using language indicating she had abandoned hope of getting the Israelis and Palestinians to produce a document before the mid-September UN General Assembly meeting codifying points of agreement. "I think it's extremely important just to keep making forward progress rather than trying prematurely to come to some set of conclusions," Rice told reporters on her plane en route from Washington to Tel Aviv. "We continue to have the same goal, which is to reach [an] agreement by the end of the year. A lot of work ahead to do that, and obviously, it's a complicated time. But you know it's always complicated out here," Rice said. Peace Now, however, charged that Israeli actions on the ground were thwarting any hopes of achieving that goal. In a report it issued Monday, Peace Now said there had been a 550 percent jump in the number of tenders issued for settlement construction in the first eight months of 2008 compared with all of 2007, in spite of US opposition to such building. Turning to Jewish neighborhoods in east Jerusalem, the report stated that the issuance of such tenders in those areas had reached a four-year high. Although many of the tenders relate to well-publicized projects, such as Pisgat Ze'ev, and Har Homa, Peace Now in its report strung the numbers together to show a trend of increased construction over the Green Line when compared to the last few years. "The government of Israel continues to build in the settlement blocs and outside of them, in spite of its international obligations," said Hagit Ofran, who heads the Peace Now Settlement Watch Team. Since Rice's arrival, the issue of construction has yet to be publicly raised. Soon after arriving, Rice held a private meeting with Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who has come out against publicizing an interim document at this time. No details of that meeting were released. Last week, at a meeting with foreign journalists, Livni said "any attempt to bridge gaps which might be premature to bridge, or any attempt to reach something which is not the comprehensive agreement we want to reach, can lead... to clashes, this can lead to misunderstandings, this can lead to violence as we had, as we faced after Camp David 2000, and the circumstances, in a way, are similar." For the first time, Livni hinted publicly that it might be impossible to come to any type of agreement by the end of the year - the goal that was set out at Annapolis last November. "I believe that a timeline is important, but what's more important is the content and the nature of the understanding that we can reach with the Palestinians," Livni said. One Israeli diplomatic official attributed Livni's opposition now to some kind of document charting what has been agreed during the negotiations with the Palestinians to the Kadima primaries. According to this logic, Livni is concerned that a document that shows an Israeli willingness to withdraw from significant parts of the West Bank would hurt her in the race against Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz. Asked about the impact of the Israeli political situation on the diplomatic process, Rice said simply, "The internal politics of Israel are the internal politics of Israel. But I don't think that anyone has been trying to bring pressure to bridge the gaps. What we've been trying to do is to help the parties to see how their own conversations might converge. And we're going to continue to do that." Following the meeting with Livni on Monday, Rice went to Defense Minister Ehud Barak's Tel Aviv home for dinner. Barak told he during the meeting that Israel will not accept a nuclear Iran and does not rule out any course of action in dealing with the Iranian threat. Rice is scheduled to meet Prime Minister Olmert for a breakfast meeting Tuesday, followed by another meeting with Livni, this time joined by chief Palestinian negotiator Ahmed Qurei. She is then scheduled to go to Ramallah for a meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, following which she is to return home. Rice praised Israel's release of 198 Palestinian prisoners Monday morning, saying "there is no doubt that the prisoner exchange is very important to the Palestinians. It's something that Abu Mazen [Abbas] brings up each time we meet... This is something that matters a lot to the Palestinians. It matters a lot to the Palestinian people. And it obviously is a sign of goodwill." Unlike previous visits, during which Rice had blasted Israel for continued construction in east Jerusalem and the large settlement blocks, but had hardly spoken about Palestinian violations of its Road map obligations, this time Rice said "both sides continue to have work to do on the Road map." Rice is being accompanied by General William Fraser, who is monitoring both sides' fulfillment of the road map obligations, and will soon be leaving his position for a promotion. Rice said that it would be a "good thing" if Fraser, who has not made any public comments since he took up his position in April, would talk about "some of the things that have been going on there."