JERUSALEM (Reuters)–Israel pledged on Friday to pull back from two West Bank cities and remove several main roadblocks in the area in an apparent bid to blunt the impact of a White House visit by Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas.
A statement issued by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s office listed moves Israel planned to take "to advance negotiations" with the Palestinian Authority on implementing the US-backed peace plan affirmed at a Middle East summit on June 4.
They included a promise to review ways to reduce hardships for Palestinians caused by the construction of an Israeli "separation wall" in the West Bank–a barrier Israel says is necessary to stop suicide bombers reaching its cities.
At a White House news conference with Abbas–Bush welcomed the Israeli announcement but set the stage for a possible face-off with Sharon over the barrier when they meet in Washington on Tuesday.
"I think the wall is a problem and I’ve discussed that with Ariel Sharon," Bush said. "It is very difficult to develop confidence between the Palestinians and Israel with a wall snaking through the West Bank."
Abbas–on his first prime ministerial visit to Washington–said construction of the barrier–a cement wall in some places and an electronic wire fence in others–on confiscated land could make it impossible to create a "free" Palestinian state.
An official in Sharon’s office declined immediate comment on the remarks–which also included profuse praise of Abbas by Bush and repetition of US opposition to Jewish settlemen’s built on land Israel occupied in the 1967 Middle East war.
Earlier–the Israeli prime minister’s office said Israel intended to make good on a pledge to hand over more West Bank territory to Palestinian security control following a troop pullout several weeks ago from the city of Bethlehem.
"Israel will transfer security responsibility for two additional (West Bank) cities," the statement said.
"The names of the cities…and a date for their transfer will be decided at a meeting early next week between (Israeli) Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz and (Palestinian) Security Affairs Minister Mohammed Dahlan," the statement added.
ISRAEL TO RELEASE MORE PRISONERS
It affirmed Israel’s plan to release hundreds of Palestinian prisoners in what it sees as a step to boost Abbas’s popularity among Palestinians and support for peace efforts by the moderate leader.
But there apparently will be no release before Sharon returns from his own talks with Bush in Washington–and the figure failed to meet Palestinian deman’s for freedom for all 6,000 prisoners in Israeli custody.
Bush said discussions were continuing on the issue–but in commen’s likely to please Sharon–ruled out asking Israel to free prisoners "who would then commit terrorist actions."We ought to look at the prisoner issue on a case by case basis," Bush said.
The Israeli steps spelled out in the statement from Sharon’s office included the removal of three main army checkpoints in the West Bank that have been choking Palestinian traffic and giving 8,500 additional work permits in Israel to Palestinians.
But the killing of a five-year-old Palestinian boy and wounding of his six- and seven-year-old sisters in what the army called the accidental firing of a machinegun at a West Bank roadblock embarrassed Israel before the Bush-Abbas meeting.
The incident was unlikely to affect a three-month truce that Palestinian militants declared on June 29 in a nearly three-year-old uprising for statehood.
Israel wants Abbas to disarm militants behind scores of suicide bombings. Abbas has avoided confrontation with militant groups–fearing a Palestinian civil war.