Rice Says Coordination of Gaza Pullout Is Critical' for Success

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice yesterday urged Israel and the Palestinians to coordinate the planned Israeli pullout from Gaza, calling such cooperation "absolutely critical."

"Both parties will have to do their part if this is indeed to be a peaceful and orderly withdrawal from Gaza," she said after talks with Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas.

"So this coordination function is absolutely critical and I've talked extensively with the Palestinians today about the need for coordination. I will talk extensively with the Israelis about it," she said in the West Bank city of Ramallah.

Rice held talks at the Palestinian Authority's headquarters with Abbas and members of the Cabinet, including Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia and Foreign Minister Nasser al-Kidwa.

She also called for understandings on Palestinian freedom of movement across Gaza's borders after the pullout.

Rice also met with Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz last night, and is to meet with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in Jerusalem today as part of a weeklong trip to the Middle East and Europe. She will also hold talks today with Vice Premier Shimon Peres and Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom.

"There needs to be clarity about what to expect," Rice told reporters Friday, en route to the region. "That, I think, will lead to less confusion on what is likely to be, under the best of circumstances, a pretty complicated day."

Rice said she would remind Abbas that Palestinians "play a critical role in providing a secure environment in which the Gaza disengagement can take place."

She gave a cautious endorsement to Palestinian progress to organize and train an effective security force, but said "more could be done." In addition, Rice said the cease-fire Abbas has negotiated with Hamas must hold.

Rice arrived in Israel yesterday morning in a new bid to promote coordination between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

On Friday, she warned Israel not to complicate the path to peace with the Palestinians by building new settlements as the disengagement plan approaches.

"We don't intend that the Israelis try to create facts on the ground," Rice told reporters traveling on the plane with her to Israel. "They simply cannot engage in activities that are supposed to prejudge the final terms of a peace settlement," Rice said.

Earlier, in a separate meeting with leaders of Palestinian civil society and opposition figures, Rice stressed the importance of political leadership "that is not in the executive branch."

Among the participants were Hanan Ashrawi, an independent Palestinian lawmaker, and Mustafa Barghouti, a physician and pro-democracy activist who was Abbas' main challenger in the presidential election in January.

Rice will be looking for proof that both sides are living up to their parts of the bargain - a smooth and timely withdrawal for the Israelis from Gaza and the northern West Bank and workable Palestinian plans to govern and keep a lid on violence when the Israeli settlers depart.

"What they are doing is moving thousands of people with their effects, and families, and it's going to be complicated," Rice said before her plane stopped for refueling in Ireland. "I know Israel has done a lot of planning; I know the Palestinians have done a lot of planning. Our goal is to make sure they are doing their planning together," she said.

The U.S. State Department is taking a close look at Israeli initiatives to deepen Israeli construction in East Jerusalem and use the separation fence to distance tens of thousands of Palestinians from the city, who in most cases hold permanent residence status.