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Rice Defends Bush Travel Plans for Israel Anniversary

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice Saturday defended President Bush's plan to visit Israel later this month for celebrations of its 60th anniversary, without making a corresponding visit to Palestinian areas. Rice is in Jerusalem for more talks with Israeli and Palestinian officials. VOA's David Gollust has a report.

Rice is here to lay groundwork for the Bush trip, which in addition to the Israeli birthday celebration will include political talks in Israel, Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

Some Palestinians have accused the President of insensitivity by marking Israel's independence without observing the consequences of the creation of the Jewish state, including the flight of Palestinians from their homes.

Mr. Bush is planning to see Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas after the Israeli celebrations, but in the Egyptian resort town of Sharm El Sheikh.

In a talk with reporters en route to Jerusalem, Rice said it is only natural that the President would want to celebrate the birth of Israel, a once-fragile state which she said has become an important friend and ally of the United States.

But she said doing so does not mean indifference to the problems of the Palestinians, especially in the case of Mr. Bush, who she said took a courageous decision to become the first U.S. president to endorse Palestinian statehood:

"Celebrating that does not mean that you don't recognize that there were consequences for the people of the region from that founding [of Israel], and we're still trying to deal with those consequences," she said. "And the fact that the president has talked about the need to found a Palestinian state, and has been talking about that since he became President, practically, says that he recognizes that the Palestinians also deserve to live in their own state and become a vibrant democracy."

Rice met Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in Jerusalem and will see Palestinian President Abbas in Ramallah Sunday in an effort to keep the sides on track for a peace agreement by year's end.

She attended a London meeting Friday of the international Quartet on the Middle East - the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations - which renewed its backing for the negotiations, while also calling for an end to Israeli settlement activity, and to rocket fire into Israel from the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip.

In her airborne news conference Rice, as the Quartet did Friday, expressed hope that Egyptian-led mediation efforts can help to stabilize the Gaza situation and get Israel to reopen crossing points to the blockaded territory:

"We're in favor of all of those goals," she added. "It's not easy because, of course, it is Hamas that is holding the Palestinian people hostage in Gaza by firing rockets into Israel, and by building up their terrorist infrastructure. But the effort the Egyptians are undertaking, and more intensive Egyptian efforts to deal with tunnels, smuggling and border control - these are all welcome developments."

Secretary Rice met in London Saturday morning with Palestinian Prime Minister Salaam Fayyad, who complained that Israeli roadblocks and barriers in the West Bank are crippling his efforts to rebuild the Palestinian economy.

Rice, while acknowledging Israel's security concerns, said she will press for the removal of more West Bank checkpoints beyond the 50 that Israel committed to dismantle during an earlier visit by the secretary.