RAMALLAH, West Bank, (Asharq Al-Awsat and Agencies) – U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Sunday after discussions with Israeli leaders on ways to ease restrictions on Palestinians and move peace talks forward.
“Let’s get to work,” Rice said as she sat down with Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak before travelling to Ramallah, in the occupied West Bank, to see Abbas.
Barak exerts great influence over the network of West Bank checkpoints and roadblocks that Palestinians view as collective punishment and a blight on their economy. Israel argues it needs the barriers to prevent suicide bombings.
Speaking before she arrived on Saturday for a two-day visit to the region, Rice said she would assess Israel’s steps on the ground to see if they had improved the daily lives of Palestinians, including promised removal of barriers.
“The first thing we are going to do is to review the ones that were supposedly moved,” Rice said, adding she wanted to discuss with Israeli officials how significant those barriers were to allowing greater movement for the Palestinians.
“Not all roadblocks are created equal,” Rice said.
Rice met Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert after arriving in Jerusalem on Saturday night. Olmert, in broadcast remarks on Sunday, gave no details of the discussions other than to say they were “part of the (peace) effort, which we will not halt”.
Abbas and Olmert, who are due to meet on Monday following Rice’s departure, agreed in November to resume peace talks with the aim of reaching an agreement by the end of this year. The peace negotiations have yet to show tangible progress.
After Rice’s last trip in late March, Israel said it planned to remove 61 barriers in the West Bank. But a U.N. survey subsequently found that only 44 obstacles had been scrapped and that most were of little or no significance.
Western pressure is mounting on Olmert to do more to ease travel restrictions and take other steps to shore up Abbas, whose authority has been limited to the West Bank since Hamas Islamists took over the Gaza Strip in June.
Condoleeza Rice told Asharq Al-Awsat that the United States would support a Turkish-brokered Syrian-Israeli peace drive but wants to see Damascus change its policy on Lebanon.
“We do not wish to stand in the way of any attempt to achieve peace between Israel and its neighbours including Syria,” Rice told Asharq Al-Awsat.
“If the two sides wished to exert an effort for peace the United States would give its blessing and back these efforts. The problem is that Syria is yet to show a desire for Middle East peace especially vis-a-vis Lebanon,” she added.
Syria says it received word from Turkey that Israel was willing to give back the occupied Golan Heights in full in return for peace with the Arab state — one of the main issues that led decade-long negotiations to falter in 2000.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has said Syria was ready to negotiate with Israel through Turkey to “find common ground” for peace, but any direct talks must wait until a new U.S. president is elected.
Washington accuses Syria of meddling in Lebanon, where Damascus had the final say in politics for almost three decades until 2005 when it ended 29 years of military presence following the murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri. “What should not happen is that we talk to Syria about peace ignoring Lebanon,” Rice said. “The Syrians should demarcate their border with Lebanon … and send an ambassador to Lebanon and stop dealing with it as a Syrian district.”
Rice also said that talking about peace with the Syrians should not eclipse a U.S. drive to push for an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal.
Rice also made a swipe at Iran, an ally of Syria, which it also accuses of meddling in Beirut’s politics through guerrilla group Hezbollah. “Iran is behind all problems in the region.”
Syrian-Israeli talks collapsed in 2000 over the scope of an Israeli pullout from the Golan Heights, occupied since 1967.