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Israeli, Palestinian leaders agree to meet regularly

JERUSALEM—There was a familiar ring to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's announcement Tuesday that Israelis and Palestinians had agreed to meet regularly to discuss ways to make daily life easier for Palestinians. She made a similar declaration 16 months ago in her first intensive foray into resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The fact that she's still trying to resolve the same issues is emblematic of the hurdles the secretary of state faces as a Middle East mediator.

By almost any measure, the deal that Rice brokered in November 2005 has been a disappointment. And it's not clear that the latest commitment by Israelis and Palestinians to meet twice a month to discuss something vaguely called the "political horizon" will do much more to improve the situation.

Israeli officials said Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had rejected Rice's efforts to persuade him to discuss issues such as borders and Palestinian refugees. Instead, the new talks will be "confidence-building" exercises between Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

If the last agreement is any guide, there's little reason for optimism. United Nations statistics show little improvement in many of the quality-of-life measures that were on the table in 2005.

Palestinian exports from the Gaza Strip are at about 10 percent of expectations. The Gaza-Egypt border crossing—the only real exit for Palestinians in the Gaza Strip to the outside world—is handling an anemic trickle of travelers.

Plans to establish shuttles between the West Bank and Gaza Strip have gone nowhere. And the number of physical barriers hampering Palestinian travel in the West Bank is up nearly 50 percent since the previous agreement.

In announcing plans Tuesday for renewed Israeli-Palestinian talks, Rice conceded that the earlier deal wasn't living up to expectations.

"I have concerns that the movement and access agreement, even though it's moving forward, is not having the overall effect on the lives of the Palestinian people that it might," Rice said before heading back to Washington after two days of shuttle diplomacy.

Yossi Alpher, a former senior official in the Mossad, Israel's international intelligence agency, who now helps run the political Web site www.bitterlemons.org, called the Gaza deal a "disappointment and partial failure" for Rice.

"If that's your precedent, it has hardly been a success, so how do you cite that as grounds for believing that you can do more?" Alpher asked.

According to U.N. statistics, virtually no aspect of the agreement has been fulfilled. Israel is supposed to be allowing 400 trucks a day through the Gaza Strip's main customs checkpoint at Karni, but the crossing is handling an average of 40.

Israel hasn't followed through on its commitment to allow Palestinians to travel regularly from the Gaza Strip through its territory into the West Bank. It's pledged repeatedly to remove scores of checkpoints and barriers across the West Bank, but the number of them has risen nearly 50 percent in the past 19 months, from 376 to 549.

The only halting progress has been made on the Egypt-Gaza border, where, along with European oversight and off-site Israeli monitoring, the Palestinian Authority took control of the Rafah crossing soon after the agreement was signed. But it's operating at well below capacity. Rafah is supposed to be open at least 12 hours a day, but it's open an average of two hours each day, which allows about 300 people to come or go.

The reasons for the shortfalls are legion, but Israel generally has cited security in refusing to live up to its end of the bargain. Since the deal was signed, the Israeli military has discovered two tunnels near Karni and has thwarted two militant groups who it said were planning to attack the terminal.

The Karni terminal was closed about 40 percent of the time last year, often because of unspecified security warnings. That prevented Gaza produce from getting out before it rotted and essentially killed a multimillion-dollar international agricultural initiative meant to strengthen the Palestinian economy.

Israel has accused the Egyptians and Palestinians of not doing enough to stop the flow of weapons, people and goods into Gaza through a network of smuggler tunnels under their common border. The Rafah terminal also has been caught up in internal Palestinian clashes that have forced European observers to evacuate and shutter it.

Problems worsened last June, when Palestinian militants attacked an Israeli military outpost along the Gaza Strip border and captured Cpl. Gilad Shalit. Israel closed off the Gaza Strip and launched a prolonged military operation to try to secure Shalit's release.

"The main reason it went wrong is that the Palestinians were not able to get a handle on security in the Gaza Strip," Alpher said. "They were given a golden opportunity to take over the territory, and if they had gotten a handle on security their borders would be open."

Diana Buttu, who served as a longtime adviser to Abbas, characterized the security issue as a red herring and said neither the Israelis nor the Americans had demonstrated a serious commitment to fulfilling the terms.

"The security concern cannot be used to punish an entire population," Buttu said. "The whole situation leaves Palestinians wondering if the Americans have any influence over the Israelis, or if they simply choose not to exert it."

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(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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