Palestinian state would boost Israel security — Rice

OCCUPIED JERUSALEM (Reuters) — US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice pressed Israelis and Palestinians to prove their willingness for peace on Sunday and said a Palestinian state would enhance the Jewish state’s security.
She urged the Palestinians to tackle fighters, as they are meant to under a US-backed peace “road map,” and Israel to meet its own commitments, which include a freeze on settlement building in the occupied West Bank.

“If Palestinians fight terrorism and lawless violence and advance democratic reform and if Israel takes no actions that prejudge a final settlement and works to improve the daily lives of the Palestinian people, the possibility of peace is both hopeful and realistic,” she told a conference in Jerusalem.

In a clear reference to Hamas, an Islamic group running in a January Palestinian parliamentary elections, Rice said no democracy could “tolerate armed parties with one foot in the realm of politics and one foot in the camp of terrorism.” At the same time, Rice urged Israel to ease restrictions on Palestinians to make it easier for them to do business.

“Greater freedom of movement is key for the Palestinians from shopkeepers to farmers, restaurant owners and for all seeking early, easier access to their economic livelihoods,” she told the conference, organised by the Brookings Institution, an independent US think tank.

Rice earlier told reporters while flying from Saudi Arabia to Israel: “A Palestinian state would indeed enhance Israeli security.” In his speech to the forum, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon reiterated his stand that peace talks could be held under the “road map” only after Palestinians disarmed fighters.

New political landscape

Rice’s trip to Israel coincides with political change there and one senior State Department official said this could make it harder for the United States to push the peace agenda.

Amir Peretz, a socialist and head of Israel’s workers union, beat veteran peacemaker Shimon Peres last week to become leader of the left-wing Labour Party, which joined Sharon’s coalition earlier this year to push forward his Gaza pullout plan.

“We may be walking into a political bargaining period. We are just not sure what all of this means yet,” said a senior US State Department official, who declined to be named.

Peretz has said he would press Sharon this week to call for Israeli parliamentary elections as early as March and the Americans fear this will further dampen peace hopes which have been stalled by violence.

“What we don’t want here is to be kept in a holding pattern,” added the senior US official.

Israel and Palestinian fighters traded fire across the Gaza border on Sunday but there were no reports of injuries.

Rice also wants to resolve access problems into Gaza which the United States says is holding up economic development there since Israel’s withdrawal.

During her visit to Jerusalem, Rice will attend a memorial ceremony to mark the 10th anniversary of the assassination of former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

After visiting Israel, she will make a stop in Jordan to pay her respects after last week’s hotel bombings which killed 57 people. She then travels to Asia where she will join US President George W. Bush for a meeting of APEC leaders.

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