Rice: W. Bank building may harm talks

Before her meeting with Livni, US secretary of state says she's "very concerned" over J'lem expansion.

Rice Livni 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
Rice Livni 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
Ongoing Israeli construction in areas the Palestinians want for their future state "has the potential to harm the negotiations," said US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. As she arrived in Israel on Saturday night for two days of talks, Rice criticized proposed housing expansion in Jerusalem over the Green Line, and speaking in the capital Sunday ahead of a meeting with Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, Rice said she would bring up the construction issue. "I am very concerned that at a time when we need to build confidence between the parties the continued building and settlement activity has the potential to harm the negotiations going forward," Rice said. "It's important to have an atmosphere of trust and confidence," she told reporters. "Unfortunately I do believe, and the United States believes, that the ... announcements taking place are having a negative effect" on talks. Livni said that the situation in the Middle East, "like always," was complicated. "While negotiating with the Palestinians, we also need to address difficulties on the ground, especially the situation in the Gaza Strip, which is controlled by Hamas," she said. As Rice arrived, she appeared more exasperated with the Israeli construction than she has in past condemnations of announcements of building plans that have often come just before or after her visits in the past 18 months. "Unfortunately, there have been a few [building plans], whether I'm coming or not," Rice told reporters on her plane. "Look, it's a problem, and it's a problem that we're going to address with the Israelis. "This is obviously a road map obligation that is not being met," she added. Her comments came in response to Palestinian anger over the Interior Ministry announcement on Friday of plans to build 1,300 homes in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Ramat Shlomo, which is over the Green Line. Palestinians temporarily called off peace talks earlier this year over Israeli plans to build homes in east Jerusalem. "Especially the issue of the new settlement units will be discussed," Abbas aide Nimr Hamad said. "The United States should exert real pressure on Israel and not just make statements. That's what we'll ask for from Secretary Rice." "The settlements are the main obstacle in the peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians," Abbas said Sunday, adding that he still hoped that an agreement can be reached by the end of the year "so long as the conditions necessary for this are met, especially removing settlements." Abbas also discussed with Rice the efforts to achieve a truce between Israel and Hamas, which, he said, would "end the Palestinian people's suffering and remove the blockade from Gaza." But an Israeli official dismissed the Palestinian criticism as "merely going through the motions." Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's spokesman Mark Regev said that, "everyone understands that in any final status agreement Jewish neighborhoods will be part of Israel, and creating controversy over these neighborhoods is in no way contributing to moving the peace process forward." After meeting Livni, Rice will hold separate talks with Defense Minister Ehud Barak before traveling to Ramallah for discussions with the Palestinian leadership. She will wrap up her first day of meetings with a dinner in Jerusalem hosted by Olmert. On the agenda during the talks will be the Palestinian peace track, the situation in Gaza, the contacts with Syria and other regional issues including the efforts to stop Iran's nuclear program. With just over six months remaining before President George W. Bush leaves office, the Rice visit is part of US efforts to encourage Israel and the Palestinians to clinch a framework final status agreement before the end of the year according to the vision outlined at the Annapolis peace conference in November. Bush said Friday that he was confident that a Middle East peace deal was possible in 2008, as he delivered the keynote speech of a farewell trip to Europe. "I firmly believe that, with leadership and courage, a peace agreement is possible this year," Bush said at the Paris headquarters of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. During her visit, Rice will hold two separate trilateral meetings. She will meet with the heads of the final status negotiating teams, Livni and her Palestinian counterpart Ahmed Qurei. The second trilateral gathering will be with Barak and PA Prime Minister Salaam Fayad. These talks will focus on steps taken by both sides to implement the road map. Barak will stress that Israel continues with its policy of gradually taking steps to ease the day-to-day life of Palestinians in the West Bank. AP contributed to this report