Israel and the Palestinians on Sunday agreed to a series of concrete steps aimed at paving the way for a final peace agreement later this year, beginning with an Israeli pledge to remove some 50 roadblocks in the West Bank, U.S. officials said.
The officials, traveling with visiting U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, also said the Palestinians had agreed to step up their efforts to prevent terror in the West Bank.
The U.S. issued its statement after Rice met with Defense Minister Ehud Barak, and Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.
It said the two men had agreed on concrete steps to implement the road map, the U.S.-backed peace plan that envisions the creation of an independent Palestinian state.
"This is a program that will improve the daily lives of Palestinians and help make Israel secure," the statement said.
The statement said Israel would remove about 50 roadblocks and take other immediate steps to speed up the movement of Palestinians through other West Bank travel barriers. It did not say which roadblocks would be removed, saying only that Israel would focus on points of special immediate emphasis.
Israel maintains hundreds of checkpoints, roadblocks and other travel restrictions in the West Bank, measures it says are needed to stop suicide bombers.
The Palestinians say the restrictions are excessive and have stifled their economy. They have made removal of the checkpoints a top priority as the two sides, with U.S. backing, try to negotiate a final peace agreement by the end of the year.
In its statement, the U.S. said Barak and Fayyad agreed Palestinian security forces in the West Bank must assume greater responsibility. Israel has complained that the Palestinian forces have not done enough to control militants.
The statement said the Palestinians would soon deploy additional security forces in the West Bank town of Jenin, a hotbed of militant activity, and work to prevent terror. Last week, Barak said he had agreed to let the Palestinians deploy some 600 Jordanian-trained officers in Jenin.
The statement also said the two sides agreed Sunday to take new steps to promote economic development in the West Bank. International Mideast envoy Tony Blair, the former British prime minister, is overseeing efforts to develop the West Bank economy to lay the groundwork for a future Palestinian state.
Among the new measures are plans to build new housing for Palestinians in 25 villages, connecting Palestinian villages to the Israeli power grid and an agreement by Israel to allow larger numbers of Palestinian laborers and businessmen to work inside Israel.
Copyright - Original materials copyright (c) by the authors. Originally posted at http://zionism-israel.com/israel_news/2008/03/israel-and-palestinians-in-peace-moves.html. Please do link to these articles, quote from them and forward them by email to friends with this notice. Other uses require written permission of the author.