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Rice trumpets progress in Middle East

Israel agreed Sunday to dismantle 50 West Bank roadblocks after talks with Secretary of State Rice.

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"It obviously will take some time if you just look at all the things that will have to be done to implement an agreement," said Rice. "These are parallel tracks. I would like anyone to show me how you establish a Palestinian state without fulfilling the first stage of the road map."

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But there's been little implementation of the "road map" by either side, and the disparity between the continuing peace talks and the lack of progress on the ground is sapping Palestinian support for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

A recent poll put him neck and neck with Ismail Haniyeh, leader of the Hamas militant group that has controlled Gaza since June and opposes talking to Israel.

... but overall skepticism remains

If the political conditions aren't ripe for implementation, a signed peace accord would be rendered a "shelf" agreement and undermine the goal of establishing a Palestinian state alongside Israel, observers say.

"The organizing logic of the peace process is gradually being rendered irrelevant. It is increasingly clear this process is bringing a two-state solution to a moment of truth under very unfavorable circumstances," says Gidi Grinstein, president of the Reut Institute, a Tel Aviv think tank.

The logic of the peace talks, Mr. Grinstein says, assumes that Mr. Abbas's Palestinian Authority and the Palestinian Liberation Organization have the ability to implement the road map as well as legitimacy in the eyes of the Palestinians. If those conditions don't exist, an agreement on paper only will strengthen Islamic militants, he says.

A spokesman for Prime Minister Ehud Olmert says Israel has made up its mind to take some risks in order to build confidence among Palestinians, but that security threats against Israeli citizens necessitated Israel maintaining major checkpoints leading from the West Bank into Israel proper.

"We understand fully the importance of the movement and access issues for the Palestinians," says spokesman Mark Regev. "But we cannot ... ignore the very real threat to the Israeli public. We feel that what has been announced today is a calculated risk."

Mr. Regev says that these 50 roadblocks were likely to be smaller barriers, as opposed to larger ones that Israel has expanded in recent years.

"The game plan in the long term is to take down as many of the small checkpoints as possible, which are between Palestinian community and Palestinian community and which impede Palestinians inside their territory, and only have them when you're coming into Israel. You should be able to go from Ramallah to Jericho without going through an Israeli checkpoint. We're not there yet, but that's our policy goal."

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