March 29th, 2008 19:39 EST
New Mideast Peace Mission Begins
By Robert Berger
United States Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has arrived in Israel, Saturday, on a new Middle East peace mission. But it is an uphill climb.
Secretary of State Rice met with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert over dinner in Jerusalem. It was the first of a series of meetings Rice will hold with Israeli and Palestinian officials over the next three days.
Rice is trying to give a boost to peace talks, but she said this visit will focus on practical measures to improve the lives of Palestinians. Speaking on the plane before arriving here, Rice said she will urge Israel to ease freedom of movement for Palestinians in the West Bank. The United States believes that this will create a better atmosphere for negotiations and increase Palestinian support for the peace process.
But Israel is reluctant to ease security restrictions on grounds that they prevent suicide bombings. Prime Minister Olmert's spokesman Mark Regev explained, saying, "Israel is interested in moving on this issue, we want to be able to give the Palestinians in the West Bank greater movement. The problem as everyone knows is if we move too quickly, if we take down roadblocks in an irresponsible manner and a vacuum is created, extremists will move into that vacuum."
Peace talks have bogged down because of Palestinian rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip and Israeli settlement expansion in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. Speaking at the Arab Summit in Damascus, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas blasted Israel.
He said Israel's "vicious settlement campaign," as he put it, is undermining plans for a viable Palestinian state.
Despite the obstacles, U.S. President George W.Bush is standing by the goal of reaching a peace agreement by the end of the year, and he will put his weight behind it about when he visits here in May.