Israel plays down talk of rift with US

OCCUPIED JERUSALEM (AFP) — Israeli officials played down Thursday talk of a rift with the United States after Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice rejected any unilateral moves to finalise the borders with the Palestinians.
Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who is to lead the centrist Kadima Party into March 28 general elections, said this week he would seek to “redefine the borders of the state of Israel” in the coming years.

But his comments in a television interview elicited a cool response from Rice, who emphasised that Israel should not try to predetermine any final status solution with the Palestinians.

While Olmert’s implicit threat to unilaterally fix Israel’s borders outside of an agreement with the Palestinians may be a vote winner, his party is also aware that public splits with Israel’s closest ally will not go down well with the public.

Housing Minister Zeev Boim insisted Thursday that talk of a diplomatic rift was wide of the mark and also played down the idea of a new round of unilateral pullouts in a repeat of last summer’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip.

“There is no disagreement with the United States,” Boim told public radio.

“What applied for the Gaza Strip does not apply for the ongoing process which should lead to a final status agreement with the Palestinians,” he said. “We want to act within the framework of the roadmap to peace.”

The roadmap, of which Washington was a co-author, targets the creation of a Palestinian state alongside a secure Israel. It has made next to no progress since its launch around three years ago.

The now coma-stricken Prime Minister Ariel Sharon decided to pull out of Gaza unilaterally after declaring that he saw no partner in the peace process on the Palestinian side.

Sharon made clear that he in turn intended to cement Israel’s hold over large West Bank settlements such as Maale Adumim and Gush Etzion, a pledge repeated by Olmert.

While the Bush regime has said it is “unrealistic” to expect Israel to pull all its quarter of a million settlers out of the West Bank, it is wary of giving Israel the green light to start annexing territory.

“Under no circumstances should anyone try and do that in a preemptive or predetermined way, because these are issues for negotiation at final status,” Rice said on Wednesday at a joint news conference in Washington with visiting Israel Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni.

An Israeli official in the prime minister’s office echoed Boim’s statements and told AFP there was “no crisis” between the Jewish state and its closest ally.

“Rice only repeated the position that the State Department has repeated one hundred times in recent months,” the official added.

He nevertheless implied that the landslide victory of the Islamist group Hamas in the Palestinian parliamentary elections last month could force Israel to consider unilateral moves.

“We are willing to discuss the application of the roadmap, but if it turns out that discussions are impossible [with the Palestinians] after Hamas’ rise to power, we should think of other solutions,” the official said.

Hamas has refused to budge in the face of international calls for it to recognise Israel and give up the armed struggle.

The group has been responsible for the majority of anti-Israeli suicide bombings since the outbreak of the Intifada in 2000, but has ceased all attacks since agreeing on a temporary truce in early 2005.

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