Rice Urges Cooperation on Pullout

Special to The Times

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

Rice also made a brief and unannounced side trip to Beirut to show support for the new Lebanese government formed in the wake of 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-Syria figures this year, including former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, whose grave Rice visited.

Hours after the secretary flew back to Israel, an explosion in a bustling nightlife area in a Christian neighborhood of Beirut wounded about a dozen people.

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

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

Palestinian officials say Israel has failed to take steps to coordinate security for the pullout, and has left unresolved important longer-term 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 to hold a news conference with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas after their talks in Ramallah today.

Sharon insists the withdrawal will go ahead as scheduled, even though a recent flare-up of violence involving Palestinian militants has markedly heightened tensions.

In the last week, both 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 after the withdrawal, engaged in a series of street clashes with members of Abbas' security forces.

Sharon, meanwhile, has had to beat back a last-ditch attempt in parliament to delay the start of the pullout, and deployed about 20,000 troops and police to contain thousands of settler 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 Rice to a watchtower adjoining his house, from which he pointed out nearby towns and villages recently hit by rocket fire.

After a Hamas rocket killed an Israeli woman this month, Israel assassinated eight members of Hamas' military wing, reintroducing its previously abandoned practice of "targeted killings." Israel is also locked in confrontation with Islamic Jihad, which has killed 10 Israelis in suicide bombings since February.

Violence claimed another life Friday, when a Palestinian teenager, apparently a bystander, was killed in crossfire during a gun battle between Israeli troops and Palestinian militants in the volatile West Bank town of Hebron. Two Israeli soldiers were slightly hurt, and the gunmen escaped.

Rice and Sharon also discussed Israel's request for as much as $2 billion in aid to cover expenses related to the pullout, including development aid to areas where the settlers relocate. The secretary of State reiterated the U.S. commitment to provide financial help, officials from both sides said, but few details have emerged about the scope and nature of the funding.

Rice's visit, her third to the region this year, pointed up the competing interests at play in the pullout. The administration sees the withdrawal as a means of reviving a moribund U.S.-backed peace plan, which is meant to culminate in Palestinian statehood.

Israel, however, sees giving up Gaza as helping to cement its hold on large Jewish settlement blocks in the West Bank. Palestinians are eager to lay claim for the first time to Israeli-relinquished settlements on land they want as part of their future state, but worry that they will be maneuvered into accepting borders essentially drawn by Sharon.

Rice's quick visit to Lebanon, Israel's neighbor to the north, was in line with an administration initiative to encourage democracy in the region.

"This is a hopeful time, and as Lebanon moves forward ... it will find an international community very supportive of a Lebanon free of violence and terrorism," Rice said at a news conference after talks with Prime Minister Fouad Siniora.

Rice repeated previous U.S. demands that the guerrillas of the Shiite Muslim group Hezbollah be disarmed. She also urged Syria to lift a blockade of its frontier with Lebanon, which is choking off commercial traffic.

Times staff writer King reported from Jerusalem and special correspondent Abouzeid from Beirut.

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