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Rice Conducts Telephone Diplomacy on Gaza Withdrawal Plans


Condoleezza Rice
Ensuring that Israel can peacefully carry out the Gaza withdrawal, and that the Palestinians can successfully take control of the vacated areas have become major U.S. policy objectives. And Ms. Rice spent much of Tuesday on the phone with Arab and European officials seeking their support for the process.

State Department Spokesman Richard Boucher said Ms. Rice first called Palestinian Authority chief Mahmoud Abbas to brief him on the Bush-Sharon meeting in Crawford, Texas, and then had a similar conversation with Jordanian Foreign Minister Hani Al-Mulki.

He said she also spoke to German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, and would also talk to officials of the United Nations and European Union in their capacity as members of the international "Quartet" on the Middle East.

Echoing comments by President Bush Monday, Mr. Boucher expressed hope the Palestinians will overcome their stated reluctance to coordinate with Israel on the Gaza withdrawal when it starts in July.

He said while the Gaza "disengagement" plan began as a unilateral move by Israel, it is in the interest of everyone concerned that the pullout succeeds, and that the parties return to implementation of the Quartet's "road map" to Middle East peace.

"It's a unilateral step by Israel; Israel decided," he said. "But it's also an opportunity for everybody and for Palestinians in particular to actually see territory returned to their administration, to give their people a chance to live and develop in their own space. We think that's a very important opportunity, and that we and the Palestinians and others want to take advantage of that."

A senior diplomat here said that in his conversation with Secretary Rice, Mr. Abbas expressed appreciation for President Bush's clear statements in Texas on his opposition to the expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and his commitment to the road map leading to a two-state solution to the Middle East dispute.

At a joint press appearance with Mr. Sharon Monday, the President said he told the Israeli leader not to undertake any activity that contravenes the road map, and that the road map clearly says no expansion of settlements.

Mr. Sharon for his part reaffirmed his commitment to the United States to remove unauthorized settler outposts in the West Bank.

But he appeared to give no ground on controversial plans to add on to the big Maaleh Adumim settlement near Jerusalem. He said while construction may be years away, Israel wants to achieve "continuity" between that settlement and Jerusalem, which is several kilometers to the west.

President Bush will continue Middle East contacts by hosting Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Abdullah at his Texas ranch April 25 and he is due to meet Mr. Abbas when the Palestinian leader visits Washington next month.