Rice discusses Gaza pullout with Sharon

She also visits Lebanon in show of support for new government

July 23, 2005|By Laura King and Rania Abouzaid | Laura King and Rania Abouzaid,LOS ANGELES TIMES

JERUSALEM - Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice pressed Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon yesterday to work closely with the Palestinian Authority to prevent next month's planned Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip from being delayed or deteriorating into chaos.

Rice also made a brief, unannounced trip to Beirut to show support for the new Lebanese government formed after Syria's withdrawal of troops nearly three months ago. It was the first such visit by a senior U.S. official in more than two years.

Security was extremely tight for Rice's trip to Lebanon, which has seen a string of assassinations of anti-Syrian figures this year, including former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, whose grave she visited.

Hours after Rice flew back to Israel, an explosion in a bustling nightlife area in a Christian neighborhood in Beirut killed at least one person and wounded several others.

Rice's meeting with Sharon was held at his sheep ranch in the Negev Desert, where he rarely receives foreign dignitaries. The intimate setting underscored the Israeli leader's desire to maintain cordial relations with the Bush administration, even as he pursues some goals that run counter to U.S. policy.

Aides to Sharon described the encounter at rustic Sycamore Ranch as warm, even though Rice, according to an American official, pointedly urged Sharon not to exclude the Palestinian Authority from involvement in planning key aspects of the Gaza pullout.

Beginning in mid-August, Israel is to withdraw from 21 Jewish settlements in Gaza and four small, isolated ones in the northern West Bank.

Palestinian officials have publicly complained that Israel has not taken steps to coordinate security during the pullout and has left unresolved important issues such as control of Gaza's border with Egypt and the possible reopening of its international airport.

Rice and Sharon did not appear before reporters after her visit to the ranch, which lasted more than three hours. She is due to hold a news conference with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas after their talks in Ramallah today. Although Sharon insists that the withdrawal will go ahead as scheduled, a recent flare-up of violence involving militant Palestinian factions has markedly heightened tensions.

In the past week, Abbas and Sharon have had to fight off strong challenges from domestic opponents.

Members of the militant group Hamas, which seeks to heighten its influence in Gaza, engaged in a series of street clashes with members of Abbas' security forces.

Sharon, for his part, beat back a last-ditch attempt in parliament to delay the start of the pullout. He also deployed about 20,000 Israeli troops and police officers to contain thousands of activists who tried to march on the Gaza settlements, which are now a closed military zone.

In his talks with Rice, Sharon, keeping to what has become a familiar strategy in meetings with U.S. officials, sought to put the focus on the threat posed by Palestinian militants. He took the secretary of state to a watchtower adjoining his house, from which he pointed out nearby Negev towns and villages recently hit by rocket fire.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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