JERUSALEM (Reuters) - U.S. envoy for Middle East security James Jones met Israeli leaders on Tuesday to start talks about security arrangements that would form part of any future deal on Palestinian statehood.
Jones met Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Defence Minister Ehud Barak and the chief of Israel’s armed forces, Lieutenant-General Gabi Ashkenazi, in his first visit to the region since assuming the newly-created post.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told reporters Jones would help broker security pacts between Israel and the Palestinians to ensure any withdrawal of Israeli troops would not leave a security vacuum.
“It simply has to be the case that when the Palestinian state is formed ... it has to be a net plus for the security of the region, not a net negative,” Rice told reporters en route to a Palestinian donor conference in Paris.
Rice said Jones would help the Palestinians build up their security forces and would look into security issues with others in the region such as Jordan and Egypt, as well as with Israel.
Senior Western and Israeli officials briefed on Jones’s role said he would also oversee U.S. security involvement in the Palestinian territories.
“(Olmert) committed full support and full cooperation to the general in his mission,” Mark Regev, Olmert’s spokesman, said.
The officials said Jones will not directly serve as the “judge” of whether Israel and the Palestinians are meeting their first-phase commitments under the long-stalled “road map” peace plan, but that he will help oversee the process.
The road map calls on Israel to halt all settlement activity and on the Palestinians to rein in militants.
Final-status negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians were launched last month at a peace conference in Annapolis, Maryland, with a goal of reaching a deal on statehood by the end of next year.
Security issues are central to the talks because Israel has said it will not implement any peace deal until the Palestinians dismantle militant groups in the occupied West Bank and the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip.
Jones’s appointment was announced after the conference but few details have been made public about his future role.
A general schooled in diplomacy, Jones was NATO Supreme Allied Commander in Europe until 2006. He is expected to have a broader mandate than U.S. General Keith Dayton, the U.S. security coordinator between Israel and the Palestinians, who will focus on developing Palestinian security forces loyal to President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.
Jones met top Palestinian officials on Monday on the sidelines of a donors conference in Paris.
Reporting by Adam Entous; Editing by Elizabeth Piper