JERUSALEM (AFP) – US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was expected to announce an easing of Israeli restrictions on the beleaguered Palestinian territories as she wrapped up a Middle East tour aimed at breathing life into the moribund peace process.
Washington’s top diplomat was expecting to make “progress” on the issue as she began meetings with Israeli counterpart Tzipi Livni and Defense Minister Amir Peretz in Jerusalem, a top State Department official said.
“We hope to make some progress on the access and movements issues,” the official, who requested anonymity, told reporters travelling with Rice.
Specifically, officials are expected to announce the reopening of Gaza’s Karni crossing with Israel, the main crossing point for the transit of goods between the strip and the Jewish state.
The crossing has been closed since August 15, affecting Gaza’s vital supplies of food, medicines and fuel.
A senior Israeli security official said Wednesday that Peretz would present Rice with options for reopening Karni as well as the Rafah crossing in the south, Gaza’s only border point that bypasses Israel.
The Rafah crossing has been closed almost continuously since Israel launched a massive offensive on Gaza in late June aiming to recover a soldier abducted by militants. It was reopened on Wednesday and Thursday.
During dinner with Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas, Rice discussed ways of easing the restrictions imposed on the Palestinian territories since then.
Earlier in Ramallah, Rice and presented a united front, saying any Palestinian government should respect the peace principles set out by the so-called Middle East quartet — The European Union, Russia, the United States and the United Nations.
After meeting Abbas on the third leg of a Middle East tour aimed at bolstering moderate Arab leaders and reviving the moribund peace process, Rice said the Palestinians should be served by a government “that observes the quartet principles and that can form the basis then for movement forward on what we all desire.
“And that is a two-state solution, a solution in which a democratic Palestine and a democratic Israel can live side by side in peace,” she told a joint news conference with Abbas.
Abbas, in a standoff with the governing Islamist Hamas movement over a platform for a national unity government, said any future cabinet would have to abide by past peace deals — one of the key Western demands to which Hamas refuses to accede.
“Today we say that any government to be formed has to be fully committed to all Palestinian, Arab and international legality and fully respect the agreements signed by the Palestinian Authority and the Palestine Liberation Organization,” he said.
He reiterated that stalled talks with Hamas on forming a unity government could not go on forever and warned that “the Palestinian leadership will decide on the measures to take to get us out of this crisis.”
The quartet, which has boycotted the Hamas government, sending the Palestinians into economic freefall, demands that any new cabinet recognize Israel, renounce violence and abide by past peace deals.
Hamas has so far refused immense pressure to soften its stance and prime minister Ismail Haniya accused Washington of being interested only in reshaping the region to fit its interests.
“The American administration only wants to reshape the region and the Palestinian territory in a way that only serves the American and the Israeli agenda,” he said.
Rice, who started her tour on Monday, said Washington was counting on a “new configuration” with its Arab allies to revive the peace process.
She said the group would involve the Gulf Cooperation Council — Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — along with Egypt and Jordan, and would be called the GCC+2.
As part of its efforts to boost the moderate Abbas, Washington is backing an international plan to boost the Palestinian presidential guard from 3,500 to 6,000 men, the senior State Department official said.