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Rice: "Israeli policy is to decrease settlements," deal with PA still possible in 2008

Aug. 26, 2008 1:05 P.M. (Updated: Aug. 26, 2008 1:05 P.M.)
Bethlehem - Ma'an - US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice does not believe that the Israeli government is intentionally expanding settlements in the West Bank.

Yet another report hit the media on Tuesday of Israel's accelerated expansion of illegal West Bank settlements, deemed to be one of the primary obstacles to a Peace agreement.

In spite of this report by the moderate Israeli group Peace Now, Rice said she had faith in Israeli intentions. "I don't believe that it is Israel's policy to increase activity in the settlements, rather it is to decrease activity."

Rice made this remark during a press conference with Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni.

Citing the Israeli government's own statistics, the Peace Now report says that 64% of the construction in West Bank settlements was initiated by the Israeli Housing Ministry.

Rice also told reporters that she sees settlemetns as "unhelpful" to the peace process.

After meeting in Jerusalem on Tuesday morning Rice and Israeli Prime Minister Olmert released a joint statement claiming "progress" in negotiations with the Palestinian Authority.

Rice and Olmert made the pronouncement despite the fact that both are soon scheduled to step down. Head Palestinian negotiator Ahmad Quria announced last week that he does not expect an agreement this year. In addition, Palestinians have yet to resolve their own internal political crisis; and the West Bank and Gaza remain under separate administrations.

Rice and Olmert also discussed broader regional concerns, such as Iran's nuclear program and the Georgian-Russian crisis.

Rice arrived in the region on Monday afternoon for a two-day visit to Israel and the West Bank. This is Rice's seventh visit since the formal launch of negotiations at the Annapolis international conference in November 2007.

Rice is scheduled to hold a three-way meeting with the heads of the Israeli and Palestinian negotiation teams, Ahmad Qurei and Tzipi Livni. Later, she will meet with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah before returning to Jerusalem for another meeting with Olmert.

Rumors abound that Rice is seeking an interim agreement, rather than a final accord from the two sides, a step that Israeli and Palestinian leaders oppose. Ma'an learned that Qurei informed Rice of Palestinians' opposition to this suggestion on Monday.

The chief negotiator of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), Saeb Erekat denied reports on Tuesday that Rice had proposed an American mechanism to continue negotiations after the George W Bush administration leaves office in January 2009.

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