Israel’s settlement activity not helpful, says Rice

By Xinhua,

Jerusalem : Visiting US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice Tuesday said Israel should avoid the confidence-undermining settlement activities in West Bank.

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“I think it’s no secret, and I have said it to my Israeli counterparts, that I don’t think that settlement activity is helpful,” Rice said at a joint press conference with Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni.

“In fact, what we need now are steps that enhance confidence between the parties and anything that undermines confidence between the parties ought to be avoided,” she added.

Rice, who is visiting the area for the seventh time this year to prod the sluggish Middle East peace process, made the remarks after the Israeli watchdog Peace Now issued a report saying that construction of Jewish settlements in the Palestinian territories has nearly doubled in the first five months of the year.

According to the Peace Now report, some 55 percent of the new construction is taking place in east of the security barrier built on the West Bank by Israel.

The Israeli foreign minister in her response to what Rice called “noise”, said it was not Israel’s policy to increase activity in the settlements, “rather it is to decrease activity”.

“You can’t allow noise affect the diplomatic proceedings,” said Livni, who lead the Israeli negotiation team. “We are involved in serious, continuous negotiations all the time. There are disparities, but we are not where we were a year ago.”

Little visible progress has been achieved since a US-hosted peace conference in Annapolis last November, when Israeli and Palestinian leaders pledged to reach a comprehensive deal by the end of 2008. Large gaps still remain on key issues, including the settlement activity.

Despite lowering expectations for the two neighbours to realise the Annapolis goal, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s office said earlier in the day that Olmert and Rice still “share the belief that an agreement can be reached between Israel and the Palestinians by the end of 2008”.

Rice is scheduled to head to West Bank city of Ramallah later Tuesday for talks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.