JERUSALEM (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said on Sunday she expected Israel to take what she called meaningful steps to improve the lives of Palestinians in the occupied West Bank.
Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said Israel wanted to help the Palestinians, but she offered no details on how it might do so and stressed that any measures should not compromise Israeli security.
An Israeli official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said one or two West Bank checkpoints and about 50 dirt mounds blocking Palestinian movement would be removed.
Citing security concerns, Israel maintains hundreds of checkpoints, roadblocks and other barriers in the territory. Palestinians call the restrictions a form of collective punishment.
Rice, who will shuttle between Israeli and Palestinian officials during a three-day trip to region, said she was looking for concrete steps to ease the Israeli restrictions and perk up the moribund Palestinian economy.
“I really do think that what we have to do is to have meaningful progress towards a better life for the Palestinian people, towards economic viability for Palestinians, even as we move towards the establishment of a state,” Rice told a joint news conference with Livni.
Four months after Israel and the Palestinians launched peace talks with the goal of reaching an agreement by the end of this year, there is little visible progress either on a deal or on steps to improve the lot of Palestinians.
Livni said Israel was looking for ways to “change reality on the ground.”
“The idea is to ease the life of the Palestinians,” she said. “Like always, the formula is to do whatever we can as long as it doesn’t affect our own security.”
Rice also held talks with Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who plays a key role in any actions taken by Israel on the West Bank. She planned to follow the meeting with a three-way session with Barak and Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.
Barak said on Wednesday he had agreed to the transfer of new vehicles and equipment to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s security forces and to ease travel restrictions for West Bank businesses.
But, citing fear of militant infiltrations, Barak signaled he would continue to resist Palestinian and Western demands for mass-removals of checkpoints and roadblocks.
Rice flies later in the day to Jordan for talks with Abbas, a proponent of the peace negotiations, and Jordan’s King Hussein before returning to Jerusalem.
The peace talks, led by Livni on the Israeli side and former prime minister Ahmed Qurie for the Palestinians, mark the first serious negotiations since talks collapsed amid violence in 2001.
The push is hampered, however, by internal divisions among the Palestinians.
Abbas’s Fatah movement holds sway in the West Bank while Hamas, an Islamist group officially committed to Israel’s destruction, seized control of the Gaza Strip last year.
Livni suggested the decision to hold the peace talks in secret — and therefore the absence of visible progress — served to undermine public “trust in the process itself.”
“So we try to find the way to combine these two interests — on the one hand to gain the trust of the people, on the other hand to have it in a low profile (way) and not to raise expectations when it’s too early to do so,” she said.
Asked about compensating Israeli settlers who leave the West Bank under an eventual peace deal, Livni said she favored this in principle but believed it was too early to craft a law because final borders have not yet been defined.
Israeli Vice Premier Haim Ramon has voiced support for pursuing legislation that would offer compensation to settlers willing to evacuate homes before a final agreement with the Palestinians.