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Secretary of State Rice Presses Israel on Roadblocks

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice wound up a weekend trip to spur Israeli-Palestinian talks with a one-on-one meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert Monday morning, and Olmert was scheduled to meet Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas later in the day.

An Olmert aide said no public statement was expected after his meeting with Rice, who at a news conference with Abbas on Sunday demanded that Israel do more to ease life for Palestinians in the West Bank by removing roadblocks.

Facing Palestinian frustration at the pace of the negotiations, Rice made unusually direct remarks Sunday about the consequences of Israeli construction and roadblocks in the West Bank. Palestinian claims that Israel is deliberately expanding Jewish settlements on land the Palestinians want for a state have dampened hopes for a peace deal before President Bush leaves office in January.

Asked about settlements, Rice said she "continues to raise with the Israelis the importance of creating an atmosphere that is conducive to negotiations."

The twin issues of settlements and roadblocks were likely to be on the agenda at the Olmert-Abbas meeting in Jerusalem.

"That means doing nothing, certainly, that would suggest that there is any prejudicing of the final terms" of a deal setting up a separate Palestinian state in the West Bank, Rice said.

For its part, Israel isn't trying to expand settlements as land grab before an eventual withdrawal, the country's senior diplomat said.

"I can assure you Israel has no hidden agenda," Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said.

Livni pointed to Israel's 2005 withdrawal from the Gaza Strip as proof that Jewish settlements "are not obstacles" if the government decides it has a larger aim of peace with the Palestinians. Israel dismantled 21 Jewish settlements in Gaza when it pulled out.

Rice emphasized that a year-end goal for an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal is still achievable, even though both sides question whether the target is realistic.

Abbas has sounded increasingly pessimistic. He accuses Israel of undermining talks by continuing to build in Jewish settlements on lands the Palestinians claim for a future state, and refusing to remove hundreds of military checkpoints that dot the West Bank.

The Bush administration is serving as a proctor for the first direct high-level peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians since talks broke down amid violence more than seven years ago. The closed-door talks have yielded no obvious successes, although all sides say the atmosphere is good.

Rice shuttled between Israel and the West Bank, passing red-roofed Jewish settlements and illegal outposts on the way, to prod for progress ahead of Bush's commemorative visit to Israel later in May. He is marking the 60th anniversary of the Jewish state.

His planned visit has rankled some Palestinians, who say the United States is too close to Israel to act as an honest broker. Bush will not visit the West Bank, as he did during his first visit to Israel as president in January.

In the West Bank, Rice said that Israeli gestures there must have a "real effect" on the lives of the people. "We are trying to look not just at quantity, but also quality of improvements," she said.

Israel maintains hundreds of roadblocks and checkpoints throughout the West Bank, saying they are needed to protect settlements and prevent would-be attackers from crossing into Israel. The Palestinians claim the travel restrictions have stifled their economy and made free movement in an area they claim for their state extremely difficult.

Rice said she had discussed the lifting of Israeli roadblocks, but did not say Israel made her any new promises. When Rice visited in March, Israel promised to remove 61 roadblocks. The United Nations reported that only 44 have been dismantled, and most of them had no or little significance.

"It was the first time that I had raised this issue, and so it will be now a discussion as to how to carry out that concern, or how to address that concern," Rice said.

At the same time, she acknowledged there is a "real security dimension" for the Israelis.

There was one suicide bombing last year and two so far this year. That's down from a high of 59 in 2002, the year Israel began building a separation barrier along the West Bank and multiplying its military checkpoints and roadblocks.