Vice Premier: W. Bank Outposts Harm Israel's Relations With U.S.

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JERUSALEM - Vice Premier Haim Ramon said on Saturday that Israel's failure to dismantling settler outposts in the West Bank is hurting bilateral relations with the United States.

Ramon's comment came after U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Friday neither Israel nor the Palestinians have done "nearly enough" to meet peace commitments.

The long-stalled 2003 road map peace plan calls on Israel to remove outposts built without government authorization in the West Bank and to halt all settlement activity in the territory.

It also demands the Palestinians crack down on militants.

"Unfortunately we are not meeting our commitments, and this hurts us internationally and hurts our ability to continue with talks," Ramon told Israel Radio.

Ramon said Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Ehud Barak have delayed removing the outposts because they have been trying to "reach an understanding" with the heads of the Jewish settlements to avoid any confrontations.

"A week, two weeks, very shortly we need to reach a decision about the issue [of outposts]. The fact that we are not doing this hurts and clouds our relationship with the United States," Ramon said.

Removal of outposts, which often consist of no more than a cluster of caravans or shacks, have in the past sparked violence between police and settlers.

Ramon also said that an Israeli go-ahead for the two planned industrial zones, near the West Bank cities of Hebron and Jenin, is vital for a change of atmosphere in the West Bank.

The parks would create thousands of badly needed jobs. One of the projects, near Hebron, is led by Turkey, and both are sponsored by the Quartet's envoy to the Middle East Tony Blair. Earlier this week, Blair said progress would have to be made soon. "Otherwise, it is difficult for people to see that the political process has real credibility," Blair said.

On Friday, U.S. General William Fraser chaired a meeting between the Israelis and Palestinians and provided his first assessment of where both sides were failing to meet their peace commitments.

Friday's closed-door meeting with Fraser was the first since a U.S.-backed conference in November relaunched peace talks with the goal of trying to reach a statehood agreement before U.S. President George W. Bush leaves office next January.

In addition to pressuring Israel, Washington believes the Palestinians need to do far more to rein in militants.

Rice: Israel, PA haven't done 'nearly enough' to meet peace commitments

On Friday, Rice said that neither Israel nor the Palestinians have done "nearly enough" to meet their obligations under the 2003 road map for Middle East peace, making it difficult to sustain the U.S. push to end the conflict.

"I have not hidden the fact that I think that there is a lot of room for improvement on both sides concerning road map obligations," Rice told reporters as she flew to Santiago, her final stop on a two-day trip to Brazil and Chile.

"Frankly, not nearly enough has happened to demonstrate that the Israelis and the Palestinians fully understand ... what is a very clear view to me - that without following road map obligations and without improvements on the ground, it's very hard to sustain this process," she added.

Barak drew fire Friday from the Palestinian Authority for failing to attend the first trilateral meeting with a U.S. envoy to discuss the implementation of the long dormant road map.

Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad attended the meeting in a Jerusalem hotel with General William Fraser, who was appointed by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to oversee the road map's implementation.

Barak sent in his place a senior ministry strategist, Amos Gilad, whose portfolio covers many of the issues Fraser was expected to raise.

The Palestinians' chief negotiator, Saeb Erekat, criticized Barak's decision not to attend, saying he should have been there as a gesture of respect.

"It would have been very appropriate for Barak to go," Erekat said. "Maybe Barak couldn't go because he is busy planning more [settlement construction] and more incursions."

Gilad, however, defended the decision. "The stress is on practical talks ... with the aim of moving forward the peace process," he said before the two-hour session. "All rumors about tensions are baseless."

An Israeli official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Barak's absence reflected his skepticism about the peace negotiations.

"He didn't feel like going to a meeting and getting scolded," the official said. Some diplomats have taken to calling his representative Gilad "Dr. No". "He always says no," one of them explained.

Israel was bracing for strong U.S. criticism after announcing plans earlier this week to push forward with building hundreds of new homes in a West Bank settlement north of Jerusalem.

Fayyad demands complete halt to settlement construction

During the meeting, Fayyad expressed frustration: "Israel is eroding the very possibility of the two-state solution. A freeze on settlement activity is crucial to preserving the possibility of a Palestinian state. And by freeze, I mean not one more brick."

Peace talks launched at a conference in Annapolis, Maryland in November have been bogged down by tensions over settlements and an upsurge in violence between the two sides. Western diplomats said the peace talks would formally resume next week.

In an interview with Voice of Palestine radio on Saturday, Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said the U.S. administration can urge Israel to meet its obligations under the road map peace plan which envisions a Palestinian state alongside Israel.

Erekat mentioned stopping settlement expansion, removing the settlements that were built since 2001, reopening the PA offices in east Jerusalem, stopping military escalation, releasing prisoners and lifting closures and roadblocks.

"All of these were Israel's obligations under the road map and it did not carry out any single article of the requirements," Erekat said.

"As for our obligations, we are committed in building the institutions and committed in the security file though I cannot say we have completed this issue," the Palestinian negotiator said.

U.S. officials said ahead of Friday's meeting that Washington was not satisfied with the pace at which Israel was moving to implement the road map.

"The United States considers the expansion of settlement activity to be not consistent with Israeli obligations under the road map and we have made that very clear. I have also said that it is certainly not helpful for the peace process," Rice told U.S. lawmakers on Wednesday.

Israel has likewise failed to uproot the unauthorized outposts in the West Bank.

U.S. officials said Washington believed the Palestinians needed to do more to meet their own obligations to boost security and rein in militants in the West Bank, though U.S. officials have privately complained to Israel that its frequent raids were undermining those efforts.

Friday's meet was expected to cover implementation of the first stage of the road map plan, which calls on Israel to remove outposts built without government authorization in the West Bank and to halt all settlement activity in the territory. The 2003 plan also demands that the Palestinians crack down on militants.

It was the first meeting with Fraser since the Annapolis conference. Fraser has submitted his first confidential report on road map implementation to Rice. The contents have been kept secret.

"We examined areas where the parties are not meeting their commitments and the reasons why, and explored ways to accelerate the process," the U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem said after the meeting.

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