Rice says deal possible before May

US secretary of state to meet Olmert, says she'll be more vigilant in monitoring Israeli implementation.

Rice Livni 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
Rice Livni 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice believes that a framework for an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians could be reached by the planned May 14 visit to Israel of US President George W. Bush, Channel 1 diplomatic correspondent Ayala Hasson reported Sunday. Rice expressed this hope to a top Israeli leader Sunday when she met with Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salaam Fayed. Rice's high expectations will put further pressure on the two sides, who were already meeting frequently in an effort to meet the November 4 deadline that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert set at the Annapolis summit for reaching an agreement. After a late visit to Amman Sunday night, Rice will meet with Olmert on Monday, followed by a tripartite meeting with the heads of the Israeli and Palestinian negotiating teams, Livni and former Palestinian Authority prime minister Ahmed Qurei. US diplomatic officials said it was likely that she would return to Israel again before Bush's visit. Barak learned his lesson from the last Rice visit, when she scolded him for not doing enough to ease the conditions of the Palestinians. This time, he came to their meeting armed with a 35-page document in English outlining the steps Israel would take. In an apparent effort to further obligate Barak to honor the commitments, Rice said she wanted to call a press conference with Barak and Fayad at which the defense minister would outline the steps for the media. But Fayad nixed the idea, saying that he wanted to keep a low profile on his meeting with Rice. Rice told Barak and reiterated later to American reporters accompanying her that she would be more vigilant in monitoring Israel's implementation of its commitments than she had been in the past. She told the reporters that despite Israeli promises to remove West Bank roadblocks, the number of roadblocks had increased since Annapolis. "We've been monitoring and verifying since Annapolis," Rice said. "One of the reasons for the agreement that we have here is, in fact, we want to be much more systematic about what is being promised and what is being done than I think we've been able to be prior to [US monitor] Gen. [William] Fraser's mission. I think this is a much more systematic approach than we've had in the past. We've been told this is going to start and even be completed in a relatively short period of time. I'm not going to give you a date but I'm expecting it to happen very, very soon." Asked by the Israeli press whether she was satisfied with Barak's gestures, Rice said: "I would not characterize what we need or what I expect to hear as gestures. I really do think that what we need to do is to have meaningful progress toward a better life for the Palestinian people, for the economic viability for Palestinians, even as we move toward the establishment of a state." Barak's associates said they would accept additional oversight and that he had every intention of keeping his promises to Rice. Opposition leader Binyamin Netanyahu, who also met with Rice, slammed Barak's new commitments to the Palestinians. He warned that Barak was making a mistake by entrusting Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas to safeguard Israeli security. "I brought her information from security officials and intelligence indicating that Hamas could take over the West Bank and create what is essentially an Iranian base there," Netanyahu told reporters after a meeting with Rice that was set to take 15 minutes but lasted nearly an hour. Netanyahu said he told Rice that if a declaration of principles were signed with the Palestinians on the basis of dividing Jerusalem and returning to pre-1967 borders, the Likud and the people of Israel would not accept it. Rice said at a press conference with Livni that Israelis and Palestinians shared the responsibility to create an atmosphere in which both parties were held accountable. "There ought to be a shared responsibility here for an atmosphere and a reality that can lead to the establishment of a Palestinian state based on security for Israel and Palestinians alike and economic viability for Palestinians," she said. Livni said it was important to make progress on an overall agreement as soon as possible. "Time is of the essence," she said. "Stagnation and stalemate [are] not the Israeli government policy; it doesn't serve our own interest."