U.S. Pres. Bush 'Optimistic' on 2009 Mideast Peace Deal

Rice: We'll monitor Israeli vow to ease Palestinian movement; Israel to lift 50 West Bank roadblocks.

U.S. President George W. Bush is optimistic Israel and the Palestinians will sign an agreement defining a Palestinian state before the end of his term in office, a German newspaper quoted him as saying on Sunday.

"I hope that President Abbas and Prime Minister Olmert can sign an agreement before the end of my presidency [in January] that defines a clearly-outlined Palestinian state," daily Die Welt quoted Bush as saying.

"This could then immediately take shape when the conditions of the "Road Map" are fulfilled," he said.

"But the first step must be the clear definition of the Palestinian state. I hope it's possible. And I have an optimistic feeling that it will happen."

Meanwhile, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Sunday that the U.S. would be following up on Israel's activities in the West Bank to verify if it was implementing its promises to ease access and movement for the Palestinian population.

Speaking to reporters in Jerusalem on the first of a three-day visit to the region, Rice said: "We will be verifying what it is they are doing and this is all aimed at trying to improve the movement and access of the Palestinian people in the West Bank."

"One of the reasons for the agreement that we have here is in fact we want to be much more systematic about what is being promised and what is being done than I think we have been able to be prior General [William] Fraser's mission," she said, referring to the U.S. envoy appointed to oversee implementation of the road map peace plan.

"We have been told this is going to start and even be completed in a relatively short period of time. I am not going to give you a date but I am expecting it to happen very very soon," the secretary of state said.

Rice flew later Sunday to Jordan to meet Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas Abbas and Jordan's King Abdullah. She will later return to Jerusalem.

During the talks, the king called for greater U.S. efforts in the peace process and criticized Israeli "unilateralism, in particular its practices in Jerusalem and (West Bank) settlement expansion."

Israel, PA agree on steps toward peace deal

Israel and the Palestinians on Sunday agreed to a series of concrete steps aimed at paving the way for a final peace agreement later this year, beginning with an Israeli pledge to remove some 50 roadblocks in the West Bank, U.S. officials traveling with Rice said prior to the secretary of state's press conference.

In a statement, Defense Minister Ehud Barak's office said Israel would scrap 50 "dirt mounds", which restrict Palestinian travel between major West Bank cities. But citing security concerns, Israel has balked at Palestinian demands to dismantle major checkpoints.

Samir Abdallah, the Palestinian planning minister, said Israel's pledge to remove the dirt mounds did not go far enough, saying major checkpoints, choking the West Bank economy, must be taken down as well. "These are small steps," Abdallah said.

Hamas official Sami Abu Zuhri criticized the three-way meeting between Rice, Barak and Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad as an attempt to give a "false impression of success" in the peace talks and said Rice's visit was aimed at preventing any Palestinian reconciliation.

During the press conference in Jerusalem, Rice said that "General William Fraser will be following up on the specifics and will be making certain that in fact that are 50 [roadblocks] and that they are being removed, that in fact they have some impact on the access and movement."

The Israeli measures included a promise to allow the construction of 5,000 to 8,000 Palestinian homes near Ramallah, and the deployment of security forces in the northern West Bank city of Jenin.

But Barak's office said in a statement that "ultimate security responsibility will remain in Israel's hands" even after Palestinian forces take up their positions.

Israel controls access to Ramallah and the passage of supplies, including building materials, into the city.

The officials traveling with Rice also said, prior to her press conference, that the Palestinians had agreed to step up their efforts to prevent terror in the West Bank.

The U.S. issued its statement after Rice met with Barak, and Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.

It said the two men had agreed on concrete steps to implement the road map, the U.S.-backed peace plan that envisions the creation of an independent Palestinian state.

"This is a program that will improve the daily lives of Palestinians and help make Israel secure," the statement said.

The statement said Israel would remove about 50 roadblocks and take other immediate steps to speed up the movement of Palestinians through other West Bank travel barriers. It did not say which roadblocks would be removed, saying only that Israel would focus on points of special immediate emphasis.

Israel maintains hundreds of checkpoints, roadblocks and other travel restrictions in the West Bank, measures it says are needed to stop suicide bombers.

The Palestinians say the restrictions are excessive and have stifled their economy. They have made removal of the checkpoints a top priority as the two sides, with U.S. backing, try to negotiate a final peace agreement by the end of the year.

In its statement, the U.S. said Barak and Fayyad agreed Palestinian security forces in the West Bank must assume greater responsibility. Israel has complained that the Palestinian forces have not done enough to control militants.

The statement said the Palestinians would soon deploy additional security forces in the West Bank town of Jenin, a hotbed of militant activity, and work to prevent terror. Last week, Barak said he had agreed to let the Palestinians deploy some 600 Jordanian-trained officers in Jenin.

The statement also said the two sides agreed Sunday to take new steps to promote economic development in the West Bank. International Mideast envoy Tony Blair, the former British prime minister, is overseeing efforts to develop the West Bank economy to lay the groundwork for a future Palestinian state.

Among the new measures are plans to build new housing for Palestinians in 25 villages, connecting Palestinian villages to the Israeli power grid and an agreement by Israel to allow larger numbers of Palestinian laborers and businessmen to work inside Israel.

FM: Final borders must be drawn up before legislating settler compensation plan

Earlier Sunday, Foreign Minister Livni said that while Israel should begin work on plans on compensating settlers who may be evacuated from the West Bank in the future, it should not be enacted until a final peace deal has been reached with the Palestinians.

"I think that someone who has settled in a certain place should be helped by the government to leave it in accordance with its priorities," she told reporters after talks in Jerusalem with Rice. "In principle, as one who went through the [2005 Gaza Strip] disengagement, I think that it is proper to work on this as early as possible."

But she added that, "It appears to me that it is still too early, since no final borders have been defined in the negotiations, and it is therefore difficult to formulate this on the level of legislation," she stated.

Rice, who is in the Middle East for a three-day visit, said she expected Israel to take meaningful steps to improve the lives of Palestinians in the West Bank.

"There is a shared responsibility here for an atmosphere and a reality that can lead to the establishment of a Palestinian state based on security for Israel and Palestinians alike and economic viability for Palestinians," Rice said at the press conference.

"I understand the security considerations and I would hope and I expect that we're going to be able to some things, or that Israel and the Palestinians together will be able to do some things, that are meaningful both for security and for economic viability," Rice said.

Livni said Israel aimed to improve the Palestinians' living conditions, but would not do so if this entailed compromising its own security.

"The idea is to ease the life of the Palestinians... Like always, the formula is to do whatever we can as long as it doesn't affect our own security. Because the other responsibility is to find the way to give security to the Israeli citizens," Livni said.

Upon her arrival in Israel on Saturday, Rice said she would focus on ways to improve Palestinians' quality of life in the West Bank during her three-day visit to the Middle East.

"The improvement of life on the ground is the piece that I think really has to be pushed forward pretty hard," Rice told reporters en route to Israel. Her first meeting was with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in Jerusalem.

Rice said she would look at the issue of removing West Bank checkpoints - something Israel has been reluctant to do, citing security concerns.

"Obviously there are security issues but we do have to find ways to improve movement," she said.

The secretary of state said her visit is not intended to introduce any new American proposals for the peace talks, saying the negotiations have been "pretty fruitful" thus far and that introducing new ideas would not be "useful."

"I am not coming to insert American ideas into this process," Rice said.

Addressing the ongoing violence in the Gaza Strip, Rice said the continued Palestinian rocket fire at Israeli communities and the humanitarian situation in the Strip must be resolved.

"Obviously we are continuing to try to find an answer for Gaza, where there needs to be an end to the rocket attacks on Israel and where we need to find solutions - sustainable solutions - for the humanitarian situation," Rice said.

But when asked if she was more amenable to a formal Gaza cease-fire agreement, Rice said: "No."

The visit - which includes talks in Jerusalem, Ramallah and Amman - was intended to signal growing American involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and to prod both sides to make significant progress before U.S. President George Bush visits the region in May.

Rice is interested in raising the profile of the final-status talks and demonstrating real progress on the core issues. To this end, she plans one three-way meeting with Livni and former Palestinian prime minister Ahmed Qureia, who head the respective negotiating teams. A joint declaration about progress in the negotiations might be issued at the end of it.