SHANNON (Reuters) - The United States said on Monday it would send monitors to study whether the removal of Israeli roadblocks was making life easier for Palestinians in the occupied West Bank.
Flying home from a two-day trip to Israel and the Palestinian territories, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said she was confident the two sides were trying hard to resolve their six-decade conflict.
Following the visit by Rice, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas met to try to accelerate peace talks, which Olmert’s office said had a “very good chance” of producing results by year-end.
Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat called the talks “very serious”, while Olmert’s spokesman, Mark Regev, described them as “quite possibly the most serious talks an Israeli side has ever had with the Palestinian side”.
An Israeli official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said “significant progress” had been made on setting the borders of a future Palestinian state, but he reported no movement on either the fate of Jerusalem or Palestinian refugees.
A Palestinian official involved in the talks responded by saying: “There has been no progress.”
The meeting was overshadowed by a new criminal investigation into Olmert’s affairs that has some Israeli commentators questioning his political future.
The Bush administration hopes to bring about a peace deal by the end of the year but the talks have yet to show visible progress.
Rice spent much of her fourth trip to the region this year discussing steps to dismantle some of the hundreds of checkpoints, manned road blocks and other barriers Israel has erected across the West Bank to prevent violence.
Israel argues that the barriers are necessary to prevent Palestinian suicide bombings. The Palestinians regard them as a form of collective punishment that has crippled their economy.
After Rice’s last trip in late March, Israel said it planned to remove 61 barriers in the West Bank. But a U.N. survey subsequently found that only 44 obstacles had been scrapped — and that most of these were of little or no significance.
Rice would not say how many she believed had actually been taken away but said she thought Israel was acting in good faith.
She said the monitors would “actually talk to villagers and say, ‘Are you more easily able now to get your crop to market?’, and if the answer to that is ‘no’, it’s not to say that somebody is acting in bad faith, but it’s to look to see if there is another way to help villagers get that to market”.
Many of the roadblocks were installed after the Palestinian uprising that erupted in September 2000 as the last major U.S.-backed peace effort led by former President Bill Clinton collapsed.
The current effort, launched by President George W. Bush at a conference in Annapolis, Maryland, in November, faces many obstacles, including the weakness of leaders on both sides.
Rice, who held a three-way meeting with the top Israeli and Palestinian negotiators in Jerusalem on Sunday, has repeatedly said the sides are making progress but refused to offer details.
Washington is eager to show progress ahead of a visit later this month by Bush, who will take part in Israel’s 60th anniversary celebrations.
“I’ve had extensive discussions with them and it has helped to build my confidence in what they are doing,” Rice said. “I would be the last to say that, you know, an agreement is going to pop forward tomorrow. They have got a lot of hard issues.”
Additional reporting by Mohammed Assadi in Ramallah and Adam Entous in Jerusalem; editing by Kevin Liffey