Two months ahead of Israel's planned withdrawal of its soldiers and settlers from the Gaza Strip, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Friday that she would press Israelis and Palestinians in talks this weekend to begin substantive joint planning to ensure the pullout does not descend into chaos and violence.
Rice said she would not negotiate details between the parties as they confronted difficult issues, but would try to bridge gaps in perception and understanding. Rice's trip to the region comes just days before Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas are scheduled to hold their first summit meeting in four months.
"There is clearly a lot of planning being done, on the Israeli side, on the Palestinian side. What we've been concerned about is making sure that everybody knows everybody's plans," Rice told reporters as she flew on the first leg of a weeklong trip to the Middle East and Europe. "There needs to be clarity between the sides about what to expect -- that I think leads to less confusion on what is likely to be, under the best of circumstances, a pretty complicated set of days."
Rice arrives in the region as the mood in Israel over the disengagement plan has become increasingly dark, with some top officials warning that the current cease-fire negotiated by Abbas is only allowing militant groups to rearm for another bloody conflict. Abbas and Sharon are seen as having increasingly weak political positions, and a key goal for the United States is to ensure that both men emerge stronger when the Gaza withdrawal is completed.
Though Sharon first announced his plan a year and a half ago, few high-level meetings between Israelis and Palestinians have been held so far, with each side claiming that the other is unwilling to coordinate. Major issues remain unresolved, such as the weapons the Palestinian security forces will possess, Palestinians' freedom of movement in and out of Gaza, and the fate of settlers' homes, greenhouses and water and sewage lines after the Israeli pullout.
Israelis are intensely focused on ensuring security in the wake of the withdrawal, while Palestinians are demanding a free flow of goods and people to bolster Gaza's economy.
Rice said Lt. Gen. William Ward, whom she assigned this year to help coordinate Palestinian security, was close to completing an assessment of the military equipment required to rebuild an effective security force. She said the audit had been difficult given the "extremely decentralized, particularistic, individualistic" nature of Palestinian security.
Israeli officials have opposed giving substantial military equipment to the Palestinians, fearing that those weapons might one day be used against Israel. Rice said the Bush administration will "work at all levels with the Israeli government" to make sure the Palestinians gets the military equipment they need.
Israeli officials have been highly critical of Palestinian efforts to overhaul their security forces. Rice gave a mixed assessment, saying that "progress was being made" on streamlining the forces but that "more needs to be done" to make them effective in fighting militant groups.