- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 30, 2008

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel pledged to remove some West Bank roadblocks as a start to “concrete steps” in an agreement today with the Palestinians that is aimed at paving the way for a final peace deal this year.

“This is a program that will improve the daily lives of Palestinians and help make Israel secure,” the U.S. said.

Under the plan that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice announced, Israel will remove about 50 roadblocks and upgrade checkpoints to speed up the movement of Palestinians through the West Bank.

The Israelis also will give Palestinians more security responsibility in the town of Jenin with an eye toward looking at “other areas in turn.” They also pledged to increase the number of travel and work permits for Palestinians and to support economic projects in Palestinian towns.

In return, the Palestinians promised to improve policing of Jenin “to provide law and order, and work to prevent terror,” according to a State Department statement.

Rice, visiting the region for the second time this month in hopes of energize faltering talks, said the moves “constitute a very good start to improving” a Palestinian economy crippled by the Israeli restrictions.

Later today in the Jordanian capital, Rice heard a warning from King Abdullah II that failure to achieve peace progress “would threaten the region’s future, and in turn deepen the sense of despair and widen the circle of violence.” He spoke of the importance of “intensifying American efforts” and said Palestinians “must also be able to experience an improvement in their economic conditions.”

In Jerusalem, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian Prime Minister Salaam Fayyad consented to what the U.S. termed “concrete steps” at a joint meeting with Rice. They agreed “on points of special, immediate emphasis and work,” the statement said.

“We’ve been told that this is going to start and, hopefully even be completed in a relatively short period of time,” Rice told reporters. “I am expecting it to happen very, very soon.”

“We will be monitoring and verifying,” she added.

The agreement includes:

— removing 50 travel barriers in and around Jenin, Tulkarem, Qalqiliya and Ramallah; they are major Palestinian towns in the northern and central West Bank.

— dismantling of one permanent roadblock.

— deploying 700 Jordanian-trained Palestinian police in Jenin and allowing them to take delivery of armored vehicles. Jenin is known as a stronghold of Palestinian militants and has been a frequent site of clashes between Israeli troops and Palestinian gunmen.

— raising the number of Palestinian businessmen allowed into Israel to 1,500 from 1,000.

— increasing the number of work permits for Palestinian laborers by 5,000 from its current number of 18,500.

— building new housing for Palestinians in 25 villages.

— connecting Palestinian villages to the Israeli power grid.

— Israeli support for large-scale economic development programs and encouragement of foreign investment.

Neither Barak nor Fayyad commented on the developments when they appeared at a brief photo opportunity with Rice after their meeting.

One Palestinian official said he welcomed any improvement, but that Israel’s moves were “too little, too late.”

“We want Israel to move quickly in removing these obstacles that make no sense and make the lives of the Palestinians difficult,” said Samir Abdullah, the Palestinian planning minister.

Israel maintains hundreds of checkpoints, roadblocks and other travel restrictions in the West Bank, and says they are needed to stop suicide bombers. The Palestinians say the restrictions are excessive and have stifled their economy. They have made removal of the checkpoints a priority as the two sides, with U.S. backing, try to negotiate a peace agreement by year’s end.

Rice had said she was looking for “meaningful” steps to put in place the stalled U.S.-supported plan that envisions the creation of an independent Palestinian state through concessions on both sides.

“There has not been enough momentum,” she said. “This is a start in terms of delivering on some of those obligations.”

Israel’s prime minister, Ehud Olmert, and the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, restarted peace talks at a U.S.-hosted summit last November, after seven years of fighting.

Despite the pledge to reach a final deal by year’s end, negotiators have made no visible progress, and Olmert has warned that Israel cannot carry out any agreement as long as the Hamas militant group controls the Gaza Strip.

Hamas, which is committed to Israel’s destruction and opposes the peace talks, seized control of Gaza from Abbas’ forces last June. The Palestinians hope to establish an independent state that includes the West Bank and Gaza, which lie on opposite sides of Israel.

In Amman, Jordan, Rice held separate sessions later Sunday with Abbas and the king. A statement by the royal palace said Abdullah pointed to Israel’s “continued policy of unilateralism, particularly its practices in Jerusalem and settlement expansion, as real impediments to international and regional efforts to achieve peace.”

The U.S.-backed peace blueprint calls on Israel to halt all settlement activity in the West Bank. As for a deal on Jerusalem, the Israeli government has emphasized its claim to the city by announcing plans to build hundreds of new homes in east Jerusalem neighborhoods built after 1967.

Tomorrow, Rice planned a three-way meeting with the Israeli foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, who is leading the Israeli negotiating team, and the Palestinian’s chief negotiator Ahmed Qureia. Rice later will head back to Amman for further talks with Abbas.

Associated Press writer Jamal Halaby in Amman contributed to this report.

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