Israel takes first step toward peace

JERUSALEM – Israel pledged to remove some West Bank roadblocks as a start to “concrete steps” in an agreement yesterday with the Palestinians that is aimed at paving the way for a final peace deal this year.

“This is a program that will improve the daily lives of Palestinians and help make Israel secure,” the U.S. said.

Under the plan that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice announced, Israel will remove about 50 roadblocks and upgrade checkpoints to speed up the movement of Palestinians through the West Bank.

The Israelis also will give Palestinians more security responsibility in the town of Jenin with an eye toward looking at “other areas in turn.” They also pledged to increase the number of travel and work permits for Palestinians and to support economic projects in Palestinian towns.

In return, the Palestinians promised to improve policing of Jenin “to provide law and order, and work to prevent terror,” according to a State Department statement.

Rice, visiting the region for the second time this month in hopes of energize faltering talks, said the moves “constitute a very good start to improving” a Palestinian economy crippled by the Israeli restrictions.

Later yesterday in the Jordanian capital, Rice heard a warning from King Abdullah II that failure to achieve peace progress “would threaten the region’s future, and in turn deepen the sense of despair and widen the circle of violence.” He spoke of the importance of “intensifying American efforts” and said Palestinians “must also be able to experience an improvement in their economic conditions.”

In Jerusalem, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian Prime Minister Salaam Fayyad consented to what the U.S. termed “concrete steps” at a joint meeting with Rice. They agreed “on points of special, immediate emphasis and work,” the statement said.