In a step toward realizing their pledge to broker a landmark Middle East peace deal by the end of 2008, US State Department officials said Sunday that Israel had agreed to remove some 50 West Bank roadblocks hindering Palestinian travel.
The announcement came as part of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's three-day visit here, during which she has been working to push Israeli and Palestinian leaders toward reaching an agreement on Palestinian statehood before President Bush leaves office.
Following the Annapolis peace conference that formally restarted the talks at the end of last year, Israelis and Palestinians committed to implementing commitments under the US-backed "road map" peace initiative that are considered prerequisites to the establishment of the Palestinian state.
"Today Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak agreed on concrete steps to implement the road map," US State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said in a statement issued in Jerusalem after Ms. Rice met with the two leaders.
"All of these steps can provide meaningful improvements in the lives of ordinary Palestinian and Israeli citizens, if they are successfully implemented," the statement said.
Aside from the removal of dozens of roadblocks, Rice also won Israeli approval to allow Palestinian police to take responsibility for security in the violence-wracked city of Jenin.
The Israelis also pledged to increase the number of travel and work permits given Palestinians and to support economic projects in Palestinian towns.
The Palestinians, meanwhile, are supposed to step up their fight on terrorism and show progress on a major reform of the government.
Removal of roadblocks welcomed ...
The removal of checkpoints and other forms of barriers – some of them dirt mounds placed by the Israeli army that limit access to and from Palestinian villages – was welcomed by some Palestinian leaders, who say that the constraints on freedom of movement only create frustration and amount to collective punishment.
"I really do think that what we have to do is to have meaningful progress toward a better life for the Palestinian people, towards economic viability for Palestinians, even as we move toward the establishment of a state," Rice said at a news conference with Israeli foreign minister Tzipi Livni.
"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."
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.
... 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."