- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert pressed Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in a rare two-hour meeting yesterday for U.S. financial assistance to develop the country’s Negev and Galilee regions in the wake of the Gaza pullout.

The two areas take up 60 percent of the Jewish state’s land but have only 9 percent of the population, and Israel has tied their development to the relocation of inhabitants of Gaza and West Bank settlements that have just been evacuated.

Mr. Olmert said Miss Rice and he did not discuss numbers, but unnamed Israeli officials have been quoted in the Israeli press as saying Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s government is asking for about $2.2 billion.

“We didn’t get into specifics,” Mr. Olmert told reporters at the State Department after the meeting. “We talked generally about the needs for development and the changed priorities of life in Israel.”

He referred to President Bush’s letter to Mr. Sharon on April 14, 2004, in which Mr. Bush endorsed the prime minister’s “disengagement plan.” Israeli officials said they consider the letter an expression of U.S. support for the development of the two regions and assume that Washington would help.

In his only mention of the issue, Mr. Bush wrote: “We also understand that, in this context, Israel believes it is important to bring new opportunities to the Negev and the Galilee.”

U.S. officials do not deny they support the regions’ development but are more evasive about financial commitments. Israeli officials say they expect some assistance from the United States — though not until next year.

Mr. Olmert said an Israeli team will travel to Washington next month for more consultations on the matter.

Israeli forces were evacuating two West Bank settlements yesterday after all Jewish settlers in Gaza left weeks ahead of schedule.

“This is a momentous and very important point in history for us, but now we want to start building,” Rafiq Husseini, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ chief of staff, told the Associated Press.

“We see that we have to perform well in Gaza and ensure that we put the first construction stones for the Palestinian state,” he said.

Israel angered the Palestinians yesterday by announcing that the government had issued orders to seize Palestinian-owned land to link Maale Adumim, the largest Jewish settlement in the West Bank, to Jerusalem.

Such a step could isolate Palestinians from the city, which is about five miles from the settlement.

Israel’s plans to extend a security barrier it is building in the West Bank to Maale Adumim prompted the State Department to issue a warning.

“The Israeli government is aware of our concerns about settlement activity,” said David Welch, assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs.

“The barrier being erected by Israel must be a security rather than a political measure, and its route must take into account the impact on Palestinians not engaged in terrorist activities,” said State Department spokesman Sean McCormack.

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