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Rice meets Barak, focus on West Bank barriers

Jerusalem, May 4, 2008

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Sunday met Israel's defense minister to discuss removing West Bank roadblocks as she began a day of meetings that aim to speed up Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

'Let's get to work,' Rice said as she sat down with Ehud Barak, who heads the Israeli defense ministry and exerts great influence over the network of checkpoints and roadblocks that Israel argues it needs to prevent suicide bombings.

Palestinians view the barriers as collective punishment and Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, who is to join Rice in a three-way meeting with Barak later in the morning, say they blight the Palestinian economy.

Speaking before she arrived on Saturday for a two-day visit to the region, Rice said she would assess Israel's steps on the ground to see if they had improved the daily lives of Palestinians, including promised removal of barriers.

'The first thing we are going to do is to review the ones that were supposedly moved,' Rice said, adding she wanted to discuss with Israeli officials how significant those barriers were to allowing greater movement for the Palestinians.

'Not all roadblocks are created equal,' Rice said.

Rice met Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert after her arrival in Jerusalem on Saturday night and will meet Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Sunday.

Abbas and Olmert, who are due to meet on Monday following Rice's departure, agreed in November to resume peace talks with the aim of reaching an agreement by the end of this year. The peace negotiations have yet to show tangible progress.

After Rice's last trip in late March, Israel said it planned to remove 61 barriers in the occupied West Bank. But a UN survey subsequently found that only 44 obstacles had been scrapped and that most were of little or no significance.

Western pressure is mounting on Olmert to do more to ease travel restrictions and take other steps to shore up Abbas, whose authority has been limited to the West Bank since Hamas Islamists took over the Gaza Strip in June.

On Saturday, Abbas's security forces deployed to the northern West Bank city of Jenin for a law-and-order campaign meant to show the government is laying the ground for statehood. Rice also plans to hold trilateral meetings with the top peace negotiators, Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Ahmed Qurei of the Palestinians.

US officials are sensitive to the lack of demonstrable progress in the talks and they hope to use a visit by US President George W Bush, who will travel to the region this month to celebrate the 60th anniversary of Israel's founding, to nudge them along. - Reuters




Tags: rice | West Bank |

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