Rice Removes Road Map Roadblock

The chief U.S. correspondent of the Israeli daily Haaretz, Shmuel Rosner, recently argued that American officials were reluctant to put pressure on Israel because “the underlying factors that are obstructing a final arrangement [between Israel and the Palestinians] will not change if Israel removes five outposts or seven checkpoints.” Rosner even offered a presumably imagined exchange between Condoleezza Rice and Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak: “Rice pressures Barak to do more. . . . There must be some checkpoint you can remove, she says. Nu, Barak responds, let’s say there is, can Rice point to it and also take responsibility for the consequences?”

Well, it seems that Secretary of State Rice is ready to do just that: She is currently again visiting the Middle East, and announced that “she would look at the issue of removing West Bank checkpoints.” Speaking to reporters in Jerusalem on the first of a three-day visit to the region, Rice also emphasized that “the U.S. would be following up on Israel’s activities in the West Bank to verify if it was implementing its promises to ease access and movement for the Palestinian population.”

Referring to the newly appointed U.S. envoy General William Fraser, who is charged with monitoring the compliance of Israelis and Palestinians to their Road Map obligations, Rice noted that “we want to be much more systematic about what is being promised and what is being done than I think we have been able to be prior General Fraser’s mission.”

What is being promised now is that Israel will remove 50 roadblocks in the West Bank to ease restrictions on Palestinian movement there. Such measures are regarded as essential to allow for some much needed economic development in the West Bank. But opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu was quick to criticize the pledged removal of roadblocks, warning dramatically that “Hamas and Iran will come in.” Contradicting this rather popular hawkish stance, David Kimche has recently argued that reducing the staggering number of roadblocks (estimated to be about 560!) would actually contribute to improve Israel’s security and, in the longer term, help to weaken Hamas. Kimche bases his case on the conclusions of an in-depth study of Israeli security policy in the West Bank by a group of high-ranking IDF reservists.

A Haaretz editorial on Sunday welcomed Rice’s new resolve to push Israel and the Palestinians towards an agreement, noting that, while this may be the Bush administration’s belated “final effort” to achieve a settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the secretary of state “is a possible candidate for vice president to Republican frontrunner John McCain” and that the Annapolis process may well “continue, in an identical or similar format, in the next administration”.