Rice puts pressure on Israel over Gaza in bid to revive peace process

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The Independent Online

Condoleezza Rice, the US Secretary of State, yesterday launched an urgent effort to persuade Israelis and Palestinians to start co-ordinating the planned withdrawal of Jewish settlers from Gaza before it is too late to ensure a successful handover.

Condoleezza Rice, the US Secretary of State, yesterday launched an urgent effort to persuade Israelis and Palestinians to start co-ordinating the planned withdrawal of Jewish settlers from Gaza before it is too late to ensure a successful handover.

In a reference to the continued disagreements between the two sides over the mechanics of Israel's withdrawal from the Strip in less than two months' time, Dr Rice told a news conference here last night: "There is no more time to simply put problems on the agenda.

"One reason I am here is to encourage the parties to actively solve these problems."

Speaking ahead of the planned meeting on Tuesday between the Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, she said that a successful Israeli disengagement was the "best chance to re-energise" the internationally agreed road map to peace.

Each side has criticised the other for failing to do enough to ensure a successful transition in Gaza. The Palestinians say that Israel is refusing to give them the commitments they need on border crossings and export markets required to rescue Gaza's devastated economy. Israel remains highly critical of the Palestinian leadership for failing to disarm the militant factions.

At the news conference, Ms Rice praised the "good concrete steps" Mr Abbas had taken towards reforming Palestinian security services. But she added: "Of course much more needs to be done, particularly to use the security forces to combat lawlessness and terrorism."

She said that one US special envoy, General William Ward, was working on security co-ordination, while the other, the former head of the World Bank James Wolfensohn, was seeking to tackle the economic issues.

Dr Rice was also urged by the Palestinian leadership yesterday to underpin her sharply worded warning to Israel over settlement building with real political pressure. The Palestinians want to stop Mr Sharon's government continuing to expand settlements in the West Bank as it prepares to dismantle all 21 in Gaza. Mr Abbas said he had told the US Secretary of State that the expansion and the 600km separation barrier were threatening the peace process.

Ms Rice had earlier implied that she would once again raise Israel's determination to continue expanding settlements, probably including those around Jerusalem.

"We don't intend that the Israelis try to create facts on the ground," she said. "They simply cannot engage in activities that are supposed to prejudge the final terms of a peace settlement."

Ms Rice, who holds talks with Mr Sharon today, is also expected to give further details during her trip of efforts by Washington and Mr Wolfensohn, to raise up to £3bn a year extra funding for three years. The money is intended to help Gaza reconstruct and revive its economy.

Ms Rice is also expected to raise US concerns over Israeli arms sales to China, which has led to serious disagreements between the Pentagon and the Israeli Defence Ministry. She said that Israel had the responsibility to be "sensitive" to the fact that the US provides for the defence of countries in East Asia that are alarmed by the Chinese military build-up.

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