JERUSALEM, May 4 – US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice returned to the Middle East seeking to provide a badly needed shot in the arm for the peace process ahead of a visit by President George W. Bush.
On her 15th visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories in less than two years, Rice is expected to press both sides to stick to their avowed goal of clinching a peace deal by the end of 2008.
She was expected to urge Israel to take new steps to bolster Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas’s authority in the West Bank by easing travel restrictions across the occupied territory to strengthen the local economy.
The talks will be held alongside Egyptian-led efforts to broker a truce between Israel and Gaza militants that would ease an Israeli blockade on the Hamas-ruled territory, which has been sidelined in the current peace talks.
Rice arrived in Tel Aviv after talks with Middle East Quartet partners in London and was taken straight to Jerusalem where she was to dine with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert at his residence.
She was scheduled to meet Abbas in the West Bank town of Ramallah on Sunday.
Rice will also host a three-way meeting with top peace negotiators Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and former Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qorei.
"Israelis have waited too long for the security they desire and they deserve. Palestinians quite frankly have waited too long for the dignity of an independent state," Rice said in Washington on Tuesday.
She said Washington’s "unwavering" support for Israel should give it the courage to make "difficult and painful compromises."
Olmert and Abbas, meanwhile, plan to meet face to face on Monday for the third time in less than a month, senior Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat said.
"There will be two points on the agenda: the final status negotiations and the implementation of the roadmap agreement," he told AFP, referring to an internationally drafted 2003 blueprint at the heart of the current talks.
A spokesman for Olmert declined to confirm the meeting.
In remarks to reporters on the flight from London, Rice said she would press Israel on roadblocks in the West Bank.
"The first thing we are going to do is review the ones that were supposedly removed. One thing I want to talk to the Israelis about is the qualitative character of those road blocks because not all road blocks are created equal.
At the same time, she said "everybody is looking to the Palestinians to do more on security. Everybody is looking to the Palestinians to take responsibility for security. And there have to be very insistent efforts to make sure that they are not being undermined."
Efforts to advance the peace talks have been mired by violence in Gaza and Israel’s continued settlement expansion in the occupied West Bank and east Jerusalem, which Palestinians wish to make the capital of their future state.
The Quartet — the United Nations, United States, Russia and the European Union — called on Israel on Friday to halt all settlement expansion, a measure to which it committed itself under the roadmap.
A senior Israeli official told AFP that Rice might seek a public Israeli-Palestinian document outlining the progress made so far in the talks.
"But there is little chance of seeing such a document since both sides wish to keep the talks secret until an agreement is reached on all issues," he told AFP, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Bush, who hosted a conference in November that formally restarted Middle East peace negotiations after a seven-year freeze, will visit Israel, Saudi Arabia and Egypt from May 13 to 18.
Earlier this week he acknowledged that achieving peace was an uphill task but said he was "still hopeful we will get an agreement by the end of my presidency" in January 2009.
Rice will also hold joint talks with Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad that are expected to focus on efforts to improve living conditions for West Bank Palestinians.
Meanwhile, some 600 additional Palestinian forces were deployed to the West Bank town of Jenin on Saturday in the latest expansion of a security crackdown in the north of the territory aimed at building confidence with Israel.