JERUSALEM - The Associated Press
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice yesterday urged Israel to stop expanding settlements on disputed territory hours after a new report came out saying the Jewish state has nearly doubled such activity in the past year.
Rice is visiting Israel and the Palestinian territories in hopes of furthering the announced goal of brokering a Mideast peace deal by year's end, but she offered few signs of progress.
Speaking alongside her Israeli counterpart, Rice said only that she was "heartened" that talks launched at a U.S.-sponsored peace conference last November were "serious and intensive." The sides had hoped to reach a final peace deal before President Bush leaves office in January, but have acknowledged that target is unlikely to be met. Rice made no mention of the timeline on Tuesday.
Rice is on her seventh trip to the region since talks were relaunched. While Israel and the Palestinians say all key issues have been under discussion, there has been no word on agreements or breakthroughs.
The talks have been complicated by the impending departure of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who has said he will step down to battle a corruption investigation, and the Hamas militant group's control of the Gaza Strip.
Israel says it cannot carry out any deal until Abbas regains control of Gaza from Hamas, which violently seized power in the coastal area in June 2007. It also says the moderate government of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, which rules from the West Bank, is not doing enough against militants operating in areas under his control.
The Palestinians, meanwhile, have complained about continued Israeli construction in the West Bank and east Jerusalem - areas the Palestinians claim for a future independent state. Israel captured both areas in the 1967 Mideast war.
Under the "road map," the international peace plan that serves as the basis of the peace talks, Israel promised to halt all settlement construction. But it has continued to build thousands of homes in areas it hopes to retain under a final peace deal.
Rice said the Israeli construction has threatened to undermine the talks. "I think that it is no secret, and I've said it to my Israeli counterparts, that I don't think the settlement activity is helpful to the process," she said. "What we need now are steps that enhance confidence between the parties and ... anything that undermines confidence between the parties ought to be avoided."
The dovish Israeli group Peace Now released a report yesterday saying that while talking peace with the Palestinians, Israel's government has dramatically ratcheted up its construction in the West Bank.
Some 2,600 new homes for Israelis are currently under construction in the West Bank - an increase of 80 percent over last year, Peace Now said.
In east Jerusalem, which Palestinians want as the capital of their future state, the number of new government bids for construction has increased from 46 in 2007 to 1,761 so far this year, the report said.