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Rice, Israeli Deputy Premier, Discuss Next Steps in Middle East

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert Wednesday discussed the next steps in Middle East peace efforts following Israel's disengagement from Gaza. Mr. Olmert says the disarmament of extremists by the Palestinian Authority is a condition for further progress.

The United States sees the disengagement as an opening for new steps toward a comprehensive settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But Mr. Olmert is serving notice that nothing further can happen until the Palestinian Authority makes good on commitments under the international peace road map to move against Hamas and other Palestinian radical factions.

In a talk with reporters after a two-hour meeting with Secretary Rice, Mr. Olmert said now that the disengagement has been largely completed, Israel is anxious to see terrorist organizations disarmed, and that this has to be accomplished before there can be, as he put it, any future development in the peace process.

While doubts have been expressed about the Palestinian Authority's ability to deal with the radicals, Mr. Olmert said the fact that it kept the peace during the Gaza settlement evacuation shows it can be effective when it wants to.

"The fact the Palestinian organizations did not shoot one mortar shell during these two weeks of disengagement is evidence that when the Palestinian Authority wants, they can stop them," said Mr. Olmert. "This is an important beginning. Now they have to carry out the rest, which is to disarm them entirely."

Mr. Olmert, who recently assumed the additional role of Israel's finance minister, said he and Ms. Rice also discussed an Israeli request for additional U.S. aid to finance development of Israel's Negev and Galilee regions following its departure from Gaza and parts of the West Bank.

Israel is believed to be asking for more than two billion dollars in new U.S. aid over several years, on top of annual assistance package of some three billion dollars, the largest of any U.S. aid client.

The Bush administration has said it will consider the request and an Israeli official said there will be further talks on the issue in Washington next month.

Mr. Olmert's Washington visit came amid reports Israel has begun seizing new land in the West Bank, to extend its security barrier around the big Maaleh Adumim settlement, east of Jerusalem.

The Israeli deputy prime minister acknowledged the issue came up during his meeting with Ms. Rice, saying they exchanged opinions but did not negotiate on the matter.

Earlier in the day, State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack reiterated U.S. concerns about the controversial undertaking, noting that President Bush and Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon had agreed on limitations on the project last year:

"President Bush and Prime Minister Sharon agreed in an exchange of letters in April 2004 that the barrier being erected by Israel must be a security, rather than a political, measure. And its route must take into account the impact on Palestinians not engaged in terrorist activities," added Mr. McCormack. "We have made clear that the fence should not prejudge final borders, confiscate Palestinian property, or impose further hardship on the Palestinian people."

News reports say the Israeli plans for the barrier around Maaleh Adumim would take about 65 square kilometers of land, an area that would extend halfway across the central part of the West Bank.

Mr. McCormack reiterated U.S. policy that any permanent change in Israel's pre-1967 borders must be agreed to by both parties in final-status negotiations.