JERUSALEM (Reuters) -Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice took her trouble-shooting mission to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on Friday aiming to safeguard Israel”s planned Gaza pullout after a flare-up of violence.
Rice began the visit, her third to the region this year, pressing Israel and the Palestinians on Thursday to coordinate the mid-August withdrawal from the occupied strip, which Washington hopes will help revive stalled peace moves.
The hastily arranged trip followed a surge of Israeli-Palestinian bloodshed and mass protests by Jewish rightists opposed to Sharon”s Gaza plan, developments that have aggravated tensions and complicated the withdrawal.
Keeping a low profile, Rice flew by helicopter to Sharon”s sprawling Sycamore Ranch in southern Israel for closed-door talks. She was due to meet Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Saturday in the West Bank city of Ramallah.
"I look forward to talking with both the Israelis and the Palestinians about the need for tight coordination," Rice said after arriving on Thursday.
"I also look forward to talking about the need to resist any efforts by terrorists to destroy this moment of hope," she said.
Rice praised a pledge by Abbas to curb militants, but Sharon was expected on Friday to urge her to put more pressure on the Palestinian Authority to crack down on armed groups as required under a U.S.-sponsored "road map" peace plan.
The two sides have done little in the past few weeks to coordinate on Gaza amid the worst flare-up of violence since a truce was declared in February.
Israel insists on calm for its evacuation of 21 settlements in Gaza and four of 120 enclaves in the West Bank under a plan Sharon has billed as "disengagement" from conflict with the Palestinians.
A senior U.S. official denied Israeli media reports that Rice had proposed a summit to bring together Israel and Arab countries after the pullout, saying the U.S. focus after the withdrawal would be on revitalising the road map.
Overall prospects for renewed peacemaking remain bleak.
Sharon reaffirmed on Thursday that Israel intends to keep large Jewish settlement blocs in the West Bank, where the vast majority of Israel”s 240,000 settlers live.
His pledge is certain to fuel Palestinian fears that as Israel leaves Gaza, it will cement its hold on much of the West Bank. The Palestinians want both the Gaza Strip and West Bank — together home to 3.76 million Palestinians — for their state.
Palestinian officials said a long-standing call for a freeze on settlement building would be high on the agenda at their talks with Rice. Israel has failed to meet its road map requirements on halting settlement expansion.
Sharon”s deputy Ehud Olmert raised the prospect on Thursday of bringing forward the mid-August start date for the evacuation of Jewish settlers to avoid further mass protests to disrupt it.
But a senior Israeli official said such a move was unlikely due to political and logistical obstacles.
Sharon already had delayed the pullout from mid-July to avoid an annual Jewish mourning period that begins on Sunday.
Any attempt to move up the withdrawal would further antagonise religious settlers and their supporters who believe Jews have a biblical birthright to Gaza, where 8,500 Jews live in isolation from 1.4 million Palestinians.
Polls show that most Israelis support the Gaza pullout, but many opponents say ceding any of the land captured in the 1967 Middle East war would be reward a Palestinian uprising.