By Griff Witte
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, June 16, 2008
JERUSALEM, June 15 -- U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Sunday pressed Israeli officials to halt settlement expansion in the West Bank and East Jerusalem but failed to win any concessions as she continued to push for a Middle East peace deal by the end of the year.
Rice was making her sixth visit to the region since peace talks resumed in Annapolis last November. Despite her efforts, there have been few public signs of progress and, in certain respects, conditions have deteriorated on the ground.
Rice on Sunday singled out Israeli plans to build thousands of new homes in disputed areas currently under Israeli control but claimed by the Palestinians. Referring to those plans, Rice said, "I do believe, and the United States believes, that the actions and the announcements that are taking place are indeed having a negative effect on the atmosphere for the negotiation -- and that is not what we want."
Israel agreed under the 2003 "road map" to peace that it would stop all settlement activity. But Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has said the Jewish state has the right to build in areas of the West Bank that will inevitably become part of Israel under a future peace deal. Israel has already annexed East Jerusalem -- although that move is not internationally recognized -- and does not consider building homes there to be settlement construction.
Palestinians claim the West Bank and the Gaza Strip as territory for a future state and want East Jerusalem as their capital. Israel won control of those areas during the 1967 Middle East war.
Asked whether she knew of any change in Israeli policy as a result of her meetings Sunday, Rice said, "I haven't heard one. But the Israelis understand our concerns."
Speaking in Ramallah, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas called settlement construction "the biggest obstacle to the political process."
In recent months, Palestinian and Israeli officials have cast doubt on the possibility of reaching a peace deal by the end of the year -- something President Bush had set as a goal. A corruption scandal that threatens to topple Olmert could make a deal in 2008 all but impossible, because Israel would most likely have to hold new elections and form a new government -- a process that could stretch well into 2009.
Rice said she believes there is still "a chance" for a deal but acknowledged that it might not happen.
The negotiations have been carried out in secret, with both sides refraining from announcing accomplishments or setbacks as they work toward a final-status agreement. But Rice has been largely unable to get the two sides to agree to any interim steps that might inspire more confidence in the process.
Rice said Washington has made it "a very high priority" to persuade Israel to allow three Fulbright scholars in the Gaza Strip to leave the territory so they can study in the United States. Israel had initially refused to let seven Fulbright scholars leave Gaza, but it relented in the cases of four of the students.
Three are being refused permission to leave "because of security concerns," according to an Israeli military spokesman, Maj. Peter Lerner.
Gaza has been under Israeli siege since last June, when the radical Islamist group Hamas seized control of the strip. Since then, Israel has allowed only a small number of people to leave, usually for medical reasons. Humanitarian groups say hundreds of Palestinian students with foreign scholarships are prevented from studying abroad because of the restriction.
Lerner said Sunday that Israel has agreed to allow "a minimal number of students" to leave, which he said represents a change from Israel's earlier ban.