Rice Renews Focus on Mideast Peace

JERUSALEM (AP) -- Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Saturday she would push for an easing of Israeli restrictions on Palestinians in the West Bank as she began her latest Mideast mission aimed at reviving faltering peace talks.

Rice said she was looking for "real concrete progress" on several issues, including improving the movement and access of people and goods from the West Bank. Israeli checkpoints and strict travel rules have curtailed such commerce and largely crippled the Palestinian its economy.

"I will spend a good deal of time on issues concerning the West Bank and issues concerning the ability to provide a better life for the people of the West Bank, including ways to improve movement and access," she told reporters on her plane en route to Israel.

"The improvement of life on the ground is the piece that I think really has to be pushed forward pretty hard," Rice said before arriving and heading to dinner with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

Easing the restrictions would clear the way for economic revival projects proposed by former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, now a Mideast peace envoy, with the strong backing of Palestinian leaders who control the West Bank.

Rice planned three-way talks on Sunday with Palestinian Prime Minister Salaam Fayyad and Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak to explore ways of easing the regulations, including turning over more security control to the Palestinian Authority in certain areas.

"Obviously, there are security issues, but we do have to find ways to improve movement," she said. "There are obstacles that are not checkpoints and there are checkpoints that are obstacles. I think you have to look at both."

Palestinians contend Israel, in not removing the restrictions on movement, is undermining Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and his moderate Fatah Party in their power struggle with the militant Hamas movement. Hamas seized control of Gaza last year.

Israel is in a battle with Hamas, whose members have fired rockets at Israeli communities in southern Israel. Israel has retaliated with attacks that have killed scores of civilians in Gaza.

Israel agreed this past week to issue more permits for Palestinian laborers and merchants, but has yet to take down any of the hundreds of West Bank checkpoints it says are necessary to stop suicide bombers.

Broader peace negotiations have bogged down despite pledges from all sides to reach at least the outline of a peace deal by the time President Bush leaves office in January. On this issue, Rice said she was not coming to the region to "insert American ideas into this process."

"I am not bringing the 'American paper' because I don't think that that is useful," she said at the start of her second trip to the Mideast this month. "What is useful right now is for the parties to continue what I think is a pretty fruitful discussion between them."

In addition to seeing Barak and Fayyad on Sunday, Rice planned to meet with Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni before a quick trip to Amman for talks with Jordanian King Abdullah II as well as Abbas, who is currently in Jordan.

Rice then returns to Jerusalem for a three-way meeting on Monday with Livni, who is leading the Israeli negotiating team, and the Palestinian's chief negotiator Ahmed Qureia. Rice later will head back to Amman for further talks with Abbas.

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