Rice, PM downplay chance of deal by May

Secretary of state says the end of 2008 target date; Olmert: Negotiations being run in a serious manner.

Olmert rice walk 224. (photo credit: GPO)
Olmert rice walk 224.
(photo credit: GPO)
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Monday declined to address reports that the United States was seeking an interim agreement or declaration of principles ahead of US President George W. Bush's trip to Israel this May in honor of the country's 60th birthday. When asked about these reports, which have been attributed to both US and Israeli officials, Rice responded: "Our work is focused on achieving agreement by the end of this year that can establish a Palestinian state, subject to the road map." According to a rough transcript of remarks she made during a stop in Jordan, Rice added, "I don't see any purpose in talking about anything but getting to an agreement. And we need to by the end of 2008, which is what Annapolis has set out to do - to get to an agreement that will establish a Palestinian state. That's what we're focused on." The assessment in Washington is that focusing on an interim declaration would distract from the larger negotiation effort by potentially leading, for instance, to disputes over something that was by definition only temporary. However, State Department Spokesman Tom Casey didn't rule out the possibility of Israelis and Palestinians producing such a document of their own accord. "I'm not aware of any particular plans for any kind of interim measure," he said when asked the same question posed to Rice. "But certainly we leave it to the Israelis and Palestinians to determine how they specifically want to get to that goal." Prime Minister Ehud Olmert also downplayed expectations in a speech to the Kadima faction, in which he referred indirectly to the headlines about the potential for a declaration of principles agreement in May and about significant progress in the negotiations with the Palestinians. "The diplomatic negotiations are being run in a serious manner, but when I read dramatic headlines that everything is already being agreed and the details have been defined, I tell myself, it's too bad I don't know about it," Olmert said. "And when I read that nothing is happening, I think, I'm glad I know something is happening. There are negotiations and we are doing everything possible to advance them so that in 2008, we will be able to exactly define the [borders of the] two states." Rice met with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Amman on Monday before heading to Ukraine. She is expected back in Israel at the beginning of May ahead of Bush's May 14 visit. A senior American official said the US envoy in charge of monitoring implementation, Lt. Gen. William Fraser III, would be returning to the region around April 11 to monitor the implementation of the gestures Israel plans to make to the Palestinians, which Defense Minister Ehud Barak presented to Rice Sunday. The IDF already began implementing one of the measures on Monday when it removed the Rimonim Checkpoint near Ramallah. By removing the checkpoint, Palestinians from Ramallah will have free access to the Jordan Valley and to Jericho. IDF sources in Central Command said that following the removal of the checkpoint, the military would increase its presence in the area - near the settlements of Kochav Hashachar and Ma'aleh Efraim - by conducting extra patrols to ensure the security of the settlements. The Council of Jewish Communities of Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip slammed the move and claimed that after the checkpoint was removed - in a past series of gestures to the PA - a mother of seven children was killed in a shooting attack. "We are going to man the area ourselves," said Dani Dayan, who heads the council. On Monday he went down to the checkpoint to inspect the area. "The moment the checkpoint was removed, the clock started to tick toward the next victim." Defense officials said that 50 dirt roadblocks slated for removal would be taken down in the coming days and would significantly ease restrictions on Palestinian travel throughout the West Bank. Middle East mediator Tony Blair welcomed Barak's announcement. "It is an important first step toward changing the facts on the ground, and improving Palestinian daily lives, in order to build real confidence on the part of the Israeli and Palestinian people that a viable, secure and prosperous state can be achieved," Blair said. Tovah Lazaroff and AP contributed to the report.