BERLIN – National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice (search) stressed that the United States is committed to bringing about Palestinian statehood during talks Monday with Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia (search), a Palestinian delegate said.
A senior U.S. official said that Rice had urged the Palestinians to make more progress on political reform and security, and stressed that Washington views Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat (search) as a "negative and unhelpful" factor.
Rice's meeting with Qureia was part of a fresh push by the Bush administration to restore movement to Mideast peace efforts. It followed a meeting in Jordan Saturday between Qureia and Secretary of State Colin Powell.
"Rice reiterated that they are committed to the two-state solution, and that Bush is the first president to commit to a Palestinian state," Palestinian Cabinet minister Saeb Erekat, a member of Qureia's delegation, told The Associated Press. He described the 1 1/2-hour encounter as "in-depth, constructive and positive."
The meeting came as Palestinians fled homes in the Rafah refugee camp, with Israeli tanks cutting off the area from the rest of the Gaza Strip in preparation for what is expected to be a major Israeli military offensive. On Sunday, Israel's Supreme Court ruled that the military could keep razing houses to protect soldiers' lives, and Israel's army chief said hundreds more homes in Rafah were marked for demolition.
"We stressed the need to interfere immediately to stop the major catastrophe taking place in Rafah," Erekat said. "They said they have contacted the Israelis on the Rafah demolitions."
Israel, he said, was committing a "major crime" against the Palestinians.
A senior U.S. official, who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity, said Rice pushed for greater reform efforts from the Palestinians. Before the meeting, she had urged them to build "accountable political and economic institutions" under a prime minister with full authority.
The Palestinians suggested that Arafat, who has been holed up in his compound in the West Bank city of Ramallah for nearly two years, could play a more positive role if he were able to travel, the U.S. official said, but Rice disputed that.
"He has been a negative and unhelpful source for a long time," the official said.
At his meeting with Qureia Saturday, Powell urged the Palestinian prime minister to seize the opportunity in Sharon's proposal to dismantle Israeli settlements in Gaza and some on the West Bank.
Powell said Qureia had agreed to look at whatever refinements Sharon makes in his proposal to evacuate all soldiers and the 7,500 Jewish settlers from the coastal Gaza strip, following its rejection by Likud hard-liners.
"We want the withdrawal from Gaza to be comprehensive, with a full dismantlement of settlements," Erekat said after the meeting with Rice. "The crossings should be in our control, and the withdrawal should be part of the 'road map,' and not an alternative to it."
Erekat said the Palestinians stressed their "full commitment" to the stalled U.S.-backed 'road map' peace plan — "including our security obligations."
"We urged them to begin — as specified in the 'road map' with the help of Jordan and Egypt — the retraining and rebuilding of our security forces," he said.
"We told them that the Americans must lead the effort in cooperation with Jordan and Egypt and that we are willing to begin this immediately."
Iraq also was on Rice's agenda in Berlin, which included a meeting with national security advisers from 10 European countries in Berlin.
U.S. administration officials said the focus was the scheduled June 30 transfer of power to an interim Iraqi administration, the need for a new U.N. Security Council resolution and increased international participation.