After landing in Israel on Thursday U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met with the Israeli Foreign Minister, Silvan Shalom, and praised the Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, for what she described as his “determination to carry out the disengagement plan.”

“This step will encourage the Palestinians to fight terror” Rice said “Sharon has taken a historic move.”

Shalom and Rice met on Thursday night and held a joint press conference. “Sharon’s plan will improve the security situation in the region,and will improve chances for a lasting peace,” Rice said.   

Rice added that Palestinian President Abbas, “made a fine statement” when he called for action against “Palestinian gunmen”.

Rice also said that she will be working with Israel and the P.A in order to achieve a “tight coordination” and fast declaration on a number of key issues.

According to Israeli sources security officials in Israel decided in principle to resume pullout coordination with the P.A, after halting it following the Netanya suicide bombing.

Shalom also said that he hopes that Israel will have a “fast normalization” of relations with Arab countries.

“There is a chance to improve our relations with Arab countries in the coming months,” Shalom said, “We hope to open representations of Arab countries in Israel. We are sure that the US will contribute to this effort”. 

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Sharon vows to expand settlements in the West Bank

{mosimage}The Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said on Thursday that he intends to expand the West Bank settlement of Ariel. The statement came only a few hours before the expected arrival of the US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

Sharon visited the settlement and said that it “Will always be an inseparable part of Israel”. He added that he intends to extend Ariel settlement, whose construction he personally supervised, in addition to other settlement blocs in the West Bank.

“These settlement blocs will always be part of the State of Israel, they will remain in geographical continuity with Israel,” Sharon said. “They represent the success of the Israeli dream of keeping the large settlement blocs in the West Bank”

Rice arrived in the region for a planned two-day visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories.

Israeli sources reported that Rice will be meeting with Sharon’s advisor, Dov Weisglass and the Israeli Minister of Defense, Shaul Mofaz. 

“Rice aims to demonstrate the US involvement in developments in the region, especially with the approaching date for implementing disengagement”, the source said. “She intends to work on strengthening coordination between Israel and the P.A”. 

US officials said that Rice will try to facilitate and coordinate the moves between Israel and the P.A before Israel starts implementing disengagement.

Rice is expected to visit Sharon at his Sycamore Ranch home on Friday.“She will meet with Shalom on Thursday night, and will meet Mofaz on Friday,” the Israeli online daily, Haaretz, reported.

Rice is expected to discuss the Israeli request for an additional $2.1 billion dollars with Israeli officials.

Rice is expected to head to the Palestinian areas on Saturday.

Meanwhile, senior sources in the Israeli government said that Sharon will not meet the Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, before withdrawing from Gaza and the northern West Bank.  

Officials at the White House raised the possibility that Rice will try to arrange a meeting between Sharon and Abbas, but when Sharon made it clear that he will only meet Abbas after pullout US officials dropped the issue.

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