Israelis agree to ease some restrictions in West Bank

JERUSALEM - Four months into the Bush administration's final push for peace, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice secured a modest agreement from Israel on Sunday designed to shore up Palestinian security forces and scale back the number of roadblocks hobbling the West Bank economy.

Along with a pledge to remove 50 dirt berms, Israel agreed to allow 700 newly trained Palestinian soldiers to take up posts in the northern West Bank city of Jenin and approved delivery of 25 armored personnel carriers for the Palestinian Authority.

Rice praised the Israeli moves as a "very good first step" that could help bolster ongoing peace talks.

But Palestinian leaders voiced skepticism and noted that Israel had failed to follow through on previous pledges to remove roadblocks or provide Palestinian security forces with updated military equipment.

"I will believe it when I see it," said veteran Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat. "We have heard this many, many times before."

Israel's network of nearly 600 roadblocks, checkpoints and barriers is one of the main ways its military controls life for the 2.4 million Palestinians living in the West Bank.

Israel previously agreed to reduce the number of West Bank roadblocks, but it has actually boosted the number by more than 10 percent over the two years, according to United Nations figures.

Since President Bush launched his latest peace plan in Annapolis last November, Israel has added another 20 West Bank roadblocks, bringing the overall number to 580.

After hosting a rare three-way meeting on Sunday with Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salaam Fayyad, Rice said that she expected roadblock removal to take place quickly.

"We have been told this is going to start -- and hopefully even be completed

in a relatively short period of time," Rice said. "I'm not going to give you a day, but I'm expecting it to happen very, very soon."

Israel resisted pressure to remove roadblocks because the military views the network of obstacles as critical to preventing potential attacks.

But easing the travel restrictions is essential for rebuilding the anemic Palestinian economy in the West Bank.

Rice's latest Middle East trip is part of an intense new effort by the Bush administration to inject new momentum into the sluggish peace process. She is the latest in a series of top administration officials, including Vice President Dick Cheney, to hold meeting here in an attempt to lay the groundwork for more substantive progress when President Bush returns in May to celebrate Israel's 60th anniversary.

After a series of meetings with Israeli leaders in Jerusalem, Rice flew to Amman to meet with Jordan's King Abdullah and Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas, who is on his way back to the West Bank after attending the Arab Summit in Damascus, Syria.

Rice is prodding both Israelis and Palestinians to make concrete changes to bolster mutual confidence while negotiators press ahead with peace talks.

Along with the roadblock removal and security steps, Israel agreed to allow 5,000 more Palestinian construction workers from the West Bank to find jobs in Israel, a 33 percent increase. Israel also agreed to make it easier for Palestinian businessmen to travel and to push head with plans for a new West Bank industrial park.

But Rice's push for peace has been hampered by daily reality.

Israel continues to allow West Bank settlements to expand and stage regular military raids against Palestinian militants. Abbas has been unable to wrest control of the Gaza Strip from recalcitrant Hamas leaders who refuse to recognize Israel. Gaza Strip militants routinely fire crude rockets and mortars into southern Israel, which could spark another deadly Israel operation.

Palestinians temporarily broke off peace talks last month after Israel killed more than 100 people, including 25 minors, during an especially deadly Gaza Strip operation to repel militant rocket fire.

Within days, a Palestinian from East Jerusalem killed eight young Jewish students at a religious school, making it the deadliest attack in Jerusalem in four years.

On Sunday, Rice suggested that the silence surrounding the peace talks should not be viewed as a sign that nothing is happening.

"The fact that they don't rush to the microphones every day to talk about what each other said and try to characterize the other said and back the other side into a corner is a very positive development," said Rice.