WASHINGTON – Presidential adviser Condoleezza Rice (search) will hold intensive talks with Israeli and Palestinian officials this weekend in an effort to build on positive steps toward peacemaking taken by the two sides.
Rice, President Bush's chief national security assistant, will supplement talks that State Department official John S. Wolf has held daily with Israel and the Palestinians that could lead to an Israeli withdrawal of security forces from Gaza and Bethlehem.
Israeli and Palestinian security officials agreed in principle Friday on an Israeli pullback from parts of Gaza (search), Secretary of State Colin Powell said Friday. He said while the details were not clear, it was a positive step, due to be followed by a similar takeover by Palestinian security forces in Bethlehem on the West Bank (search).
Powell said Wolf would appoint a U.S. team to monitor the agreement and to provide economic and humanitarian help to the Palestinians. "We are pleased with the progress we have seen," he said at a news conference.
The White House, welcoming the agreement, called it the "first significant joint step toward implementation of commitments" Israeli and Palestinian leaders made at a summit in Jordan with Bush.
It is important the two sides take further steps leading to establishment of a Palestinian state living alongside Israel, the White House statement said.
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the Palestinians would benefit from a transfer of security responsibilities to Palestinian forces.
"Both sides have been serious," Boucher said. "It would be a major improvement in the lives of the Palestinians who live there."
On a related front, the administration said a moratorium in attacks on Israelis by Hamas (search) and other suicide-bomb groups would be a welcome first step.
"The trends are moving in the right direction," Powell said. But he hesitated to confirm the conclusion of a truce accord. "I am anxious to see an actual agreement," he said.
Boucher, meanwhile, said a truce "is not an end in itself." He said the U.S. goal was to have the Palestinian Authority (search) dismantle the groups that have killed hundreds of Israelis.
"We would like every group to stop violence, to bar violence. That's what the Arab leaders have called for," the U.S. official said.
Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's Fatah (search) movement announced agreement Thursday on a three-month cease-fire as long as Israel stopped assassinating Hamas leaders. Bush's response was "I'll believe it when I see it" and said Hamas and like-minded groups must be disbanded.
Rice was following Secretary of State Colin Powell to the Middle East. He held talks with Israelis and Palestinians last Friday and then on Sunday with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov and European Union officials, joint authors with the Bush administration of a peacemaking blueprint.
Powell focused on trying to promote an agreement to withdraw Israeli security forces from Gaza, similar to that apparently reached Friday.
Rice plans to have dinner Saturday night in the West Bank city of Jericho with Mahmoud Abbas (search), the Palestinian prime minister. She is expected to continue talks with Palestinian officials Sunday while lower-level U.S., Israeli and Palestinian officials hold separate trilateral meetings.
Rice also is due to meet Sunday with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (search) and, separately, with Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom and Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz.