Last Updated: Tue Nov 02, 2010 12:08 pm (KSA) 09:08 am (GMT)

Rice criticizes settlements during Israel visit

Rice plans to criticize Olmert on settlements. (file)
Rice plans to criticize Olmert on settlements. (file)

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was due to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Sunday, in a fresh bid to to inject impetus into sluggish peace talks, voicing criticism of Israel's settlement policies.

Israel raised the ire of the Palestinians and Washington after announcing on the eve of Rice's visit plans to build 1,300 new homes in Arab east Jerusalem, which the Jewish state captured in 1967.

The Palestinians have repeatedly called the settlements the greatest obstacle to peace, and Rice branded the construction "a problem."

"This is a time to try to build confidence and this is simply not helpful," the top US diplomat told accompanying reporters on her plane.

"I intend to have discussions on the roadmap obligations generally and this is obviously a roadmap obligation that is not being met," she said.

The top American diplomat is on her 17th visit to the region in less than two years and her sixth since the peace talks were re-launched at a U.S. conference in November after a near seven-year hiatus.

Now threatened by a political crisis in Israel, peace talks have been marred by violence in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip and new Israeli settlement projects and have shown little sign of progress despite months of intensive diplomacy.

Both Olmert and Abbas renewed their commitment to the internationally drafted Middle East peace roadmap at the launch of the U.S.-backed peace talks.

Rice will also meet Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni who has been leading the Israeli negotiating team and is widely favored to succeed Olmert as prime minister and Kadima party leader in the absence of early elections.

Under the roadmap the two sides agreed to end violence and freeze settlement construction, but Israel has insisted on its right to build in east Jerusalem and settlement blocs, which it aims to keep in any future peace agreement.

Despite the setbacks, U.S. President George W. Bush said on Friday he remains confident the two sides can resolve their decades-old conflict by the end of the year.

"I firmly believe that, with leadership and courage, a peace agreement is possible this year," Bush said in Paris.

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