Tuesday, February 8, 2005

RAMALLAH, West Bank — Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice yesterday tapped an Army general as a Middle East “security coordinator” to assist with Israel’s planned withdrawal from Gaza and to help with training and equipping of the Palestinian forces.

Miss Rice, who completed her first trip to the region as America’s chief diplomat, invited, on President Bush’s behalf, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to visit Washington separately in the spring.

After meeting with Mr. Sharon on Sunday and with Mr. Abbas yesterday, the secretary said that Lt. Gen. William Ward will monitor the security measures the two sides are expected to take and will step in with assistance only when it is necessary.

Israeli and Palestinian leaders planned during a summit today in the Egyptian resort town of Sharm el Sheik to declare a formal end to more than four years of fighting. . The declaration is regarded as a breakthrough in Mideast peacemaking and comes after both sides also accepted invitations to meet separately with President Bush at the White House.

The cease-fire deal, finalized during last-minute preparations yesterday on the eve of the summit, was the clearest indication yet of momentum after Palestinian chief Yasser Arafat’s death, the election of a new Palestinian leader and a signal from the White House that it planned a renewed push for peace.

“There are going to be specific things the parties need to do, and we will not hesitate to say to the parties when those obligations are not being met,” Miss Rice said. “That is part of our role.”

She told Mr. Abbas, as she did Mr. Sharon the day before, that Washington is committed to the peace process, but it would step back for the time being and allow moderate Arab states in the region to be the leading mediators.

“Gen. Ward will also work with Egypt, Jordan and others to coordinate assistance to the Palestinian Authority as it rebuilds its security capacity to end violence and terror and restore law and order,” he said.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak is hosting the summit between Mr. Sharon and Mr. Abbas today, which also will be attended by King Abdullah II of Jordan.

A senior State Department official traveling with the secretary said Gen. Ward also would play a role in implementing Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza and four West Bank settlements.

But Miss Rice said the most important element of the so-called “disengagement plan” is that the two sides “coordinate” the pullout and make sure that Palestinian forces can take over without leaving a power vacuum that could be filled by militant groups.

“It is very important that the United States not somehow supplant the bilateral security discussions and cooperation that the Israelis and the Palestinians are involved in,” Miss Rice said.

“They are going to do even more, I believe, in the future, and the United States does not have to be party to everything that goes on,” she said. “In fact, it is a good thing when the parties can resolve problems on their own.”

Because of Washington’s decision to remain backstage during negotiations, Miss Rice chose not to appoint a special envoy for the peace process.

Gen. Ward is deputy Commander officer of U.S. Army Europe and the 7th Army. Miss Rice, to whom he will report, chose him because of his previous experience as commander of the NATO Stabilization Force in postwar Bosnia-Herzegovina and a recent assignment in Egypt, the senior official said.

He also has served in Somalia, Germany and South Korea.

The senior official said Gen. Ward’s small staff would include mainly people from the State Department, but employees of the Pentagon and other agencies also are likely to participate.

Mr. Bush’s first Middle East envoy was retired Marine Gen. Anthony Zinni. The last U.S. monitoring group in the region was from the CIA, but it left after Palestinian militants killed three Americans in Gaza in 2003.

Former CIA Director George J. Tenet ended his personal involvement after the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States.

Miss Rice’s talks with Mr. Abbas yesterday were the highest-level U.S.-Palestinian talks in nearly three years. In April 2002, then-Secretary of State Colin L. Powell visited Mr. Arafat, after which Washington refused to deal further with him.

Yesterday, Miss Rice met with Mr. Abbas in that same compound in Ramallah. Her motorcade drove about 200 yards from Mr. Arafat’s grave, but she did not visit the site.

During a joint press conference with Mr. Abbas, who was elected Jan. 9, the secretary announced that $40 million would be given to the Palestinians within 90 days in a “quick action program” to help with job creation and rebuilding infrastructure.

The money will be diverted from the $75 million the United States already had appropriated in this year’s budget for projects in Gaza. It will be returned to that account when Congress approves the $350 million in aid Mr. Bush pledged last week.

Just before leaving Israel, Miss Rice told reporters at the Tel Aviv airport that she had extended invitations to Mr. Sharon and Mr. Abbas to visit Mr. Bush at the White House in the spring.

Mr. Bush said after a Cabinet meeting that he was “impressed” by Mr. Abbas’ “commitment to fighting off terror” and by “the fact that Israel helped the Palestinians have an election.”

“The meetings just indicate that there is more work to be done, and I look forward to meeting with them,” he said.

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