- The Washington Times - Monday, March 31, 2008

JERUSALEM — In an effort to make progress on peace palpable to Israelis and Palestinians, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice won Israeli approval on a series of confidence measures aimed at boosting the Palestinian economy and the Palestinian Authority’s security forces, U.S. and Israeli officials said yesterday.

Israel will remove about 50 roadblocks to ease Palestinian movement between cities in the northern West Bank, promote industrial zone construction, and partially shift security authority in the city of Jenin to Palestinian police.

Palestinians, meanwhile, agreed to take more responsibility for fighting terrorism in the West Bank.

The gestures are intended to provide a boost to the Palestinian Authority as support for its president, Mahmoud Abbas, is slipping.

Washington is concerned that Mr. Abbas will not be politically capable of implementing a peace settlement on Jerusalem, a common border and the rights of refugees after President Bush’s term ends.

“The two parties have agreed to a set of steps that are a very good start to improving movement and access, improving the potential economic prospects of Palestinians, and getting some momentum,” Miss Rice told reporters after a morning of meetings with Israeli officials.

Israelis and Palestinians formally restarted the U.S.-backed “road map” peace initiative at a conference in Annapolis last year. Obligations laid out in the road map are considered prerequisites to the establishment of a Palestinian state.

Israelis have committed to clamping down on settlement activity, lifting some restrictions on movement in the West bank to aid the Palestinian economy and easing the lives of Palestinians. The Palestinians, meanwhile, have pledged to strengthen efforts to fight terrorism and show progress on government reform.

However, neither side has shown significant movement on implementing these goals, and the disparity is sapping Palestinian support for Mr. Abbas. A recent approval poll showed him neck and neck with Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas, which has controlled the Gaza Strip since June and opposes talks with Israel.

Human rights groups complain that the number of roadblocks in the West Bank — estimated in the hundreds — has increased under Mr. Abbas’ leadership of the Palestinian Authority.

To bolster the Abbas government, Israel agreed to allow Palestinian businessmen to move more freely and approved 5,000 permits for Palestinian construction workers to come into Israel.

To help Palestinian police forces get control over militants in Jenin, Israel approved the deployment of 700 security officers trained in Jordan and 25 armored personnel carriers.

Israel announced the promotion of joint economic projects, including a business conference and an industrial park, with Turkish financing, near the southern West Bank town of Bethlehem.

On previous visits, Miss Rice has been promised better humanitarian conditions in the West Bank, but Israel has done little to follow up on those commitments. Miss Rice said the U.S. plans to increase efforts to monitor the promises announced yesterday.

“We want to be much more systematic on what is being proposed and what is being done,” Miss Rice said. She said she expects Israeli action on the commitments “very soon.”

She praised the Palestinian Authority’s efforts in reining in militants in Nablus, a West Bank city that was considered the first test case for Palestinian security forces.

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