RAMALLAH, West Bank – Israeli and Palestinian leaders must immediately settle their disputes over a planned withdrawal of Jewish settlers and troops from the Gaza Strip, Condoleezza Rice (search) said Saturday.
"There is no more time to simply put problems on the agenda," the U.S. secretary of state said after meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (search) and members of the Cabinet.
Renewing U.S. involvement in the Mideast peace process, Rice said coordination between the two sides was crucial to this summer's planned pullout from Gaza and parts of the West Bank.
The United States hopes an orderly withdrawal could breathe new life into the peace process, as outlined in an internationally backed plan known as road map.
"We must all focus on the disengagement as our best chance to re-energize the road map," Rice said at a news conference with Abbas at the Palestinian Authority's headquarters.
Rice, on a weeklong trip to the Mideast and Europe, was to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (search) in Jerusalem on Sunday.
Sharon's Gaza plan has led to fears that Israeli settlers could put up a fight or that militants opposed to peace might use violence to disrupt their departure. Also, it is not clear that Palestinians can ensure security and sustain a working government to fill the vacuum Israel leaves behind after 38 years.
The Palestinians have urged that the Gaza pullout, originally planned as a unilateral Israeli move, be incorporated into the peace plan. Israel has resisted discussing any peace moves until after the withdrawal.
Israel and Palestinian officials have met in recent weeks to try to ensure that Israel's pullout from Gaza and four northern West Bank settlements will not create chaos. No agreement has resulted.
Rice urged Israelis and Palestinians to work together to quickly address a number of unresolved issues, including Palestinians' freedom of movement and access to different parts of the territories after the Israelis' withdrawal; the status of settlers' properties; and security.
"One reason I am here is to encourage the parties to actively, now, concretely solve these problems," she said.
She added, "Both parties will have to do their parts if this is to be a peaceful and orderly withdrawal from Gaza."
Abbas, who plans a summit meeting with Sharon on Tuesday, pledged to work for a peaceful pullout and "total coordination with the Israeli side."
He emphasized that the Palestinians were committed to a 4-month-old truce with Israel, but complained that Israel repeatedly had violated the agreement.
The number of attacks has dropped dramatically since the cease-fire agreement in February. Yet attacks by militants and raids by Israeli soldiers continue.
Speaking after Palestinian militants attacked a settlement in southern Gaza earlier Saturday, Rice gave a cautious endorsement to the "concrete steps" Abbas has taken to organize and train a security force.
But, she said, "Much more needs to be done, particularly to use actively the security forces to combat lawlessness and combat terrorism."
The attack in Gaza led to a gun fight that killed one of the attackers and wounded a second, the army said. No soldiers or residents were injured.
Within minutes of the joint news conference by Rice and Abbas, a large explosion and gunfire were reported near the Sufah crossing between the Gaza Strip and Israel. The Israeli army had no immediate comment.
With Abbas' Fatah party facing a challenge in upcoming parliamentary elections from the militant group Hamas, Rice called Abbas "a man of peace" and reaffirmed the U.S. view that Hamas is a terrorist organization.
Rice also suggested Hamas will not fare well at the polls, despite strong showings in recent local elections.
"I frankly don't think that it is the dream of mothers and fathers around the world that their children will be suicide bombers," Rice said. "I don't think it is the dream of people around the world that their children will have no future but one of violence."