The U.S. State Department
today (Thursday, Feb. 3) commended a decision by
Israel's Cabinet to release 900 Palestinian prisoners, pull its troops back from five West Bank towns and to reopen crossings between Gaza and Israel as peace-making gestures in advance of next Tuesday's Mideast summit at Sharm el
The State Department's Deputy Spokesman Adam Ereli said "obviously, actions such as this are important and welcome" and are likely to "help sustain and maintain momentum in engagement between the parties."
Israel's Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is to meet at the Egyptian resort town on Tuesday with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas,
Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak and Jordan's King Abdullah.
Asked what role the United States played in Israel's decision, Ereli responded: "I think the best way to express it is, we are constantly advocating on behalf of both sides taking measures which can help, as I said before, sustain engagement – actually, sustain momentum, deepen, broaden engagement and develop the kind of trust in one another that is favorable to handling the very complex problems and addressing the very difficult issues that they have to face between them. And this is the kind of thing that Secretary Rice will be working on when she goes out there."
He said the United States did not "put pressure" on Sharon to make that decision, "but as a general proposition, we are – in our dealings with both parties, we are, I think, regularly encouraging them to go the extra mile in reaching out to the other side and both taking steps that respond to the goodwill and gestures and positive actions that their partners have demonstrated, as well as refraining from steps that can be seen as provocative or that can lead to violence."
The pull back of Israeli troops will be from Jericho,
Qalqiya and Ramallah, according to reports from the Middle East.
Erelli also was asked about the $350 million in aid to the Palestinians that President George W. Bush said during his Feb. 2
State of the Union message that he will seek from Congress,
He responded that the money would be used "to help the Palestinians build institutions that are dedicated to reform and that are ...capable of helping the Palestinian people, particularly as they prepare for Israeli disengagement from Gaza and parts of the West Bank. The package of assistance that the President announced last night is designed to make an impact, both in the near term, as well as the longer term, on the lives of Palestinians and to support the Palestinian authority as it makes continued efforts towards reform.
"Some of the specific things that it would go to fund include targeted projects for the public benefit in Gaza, expansion of education opportunities, developing the economic infrastructure of a Palestinian state, helping the Palestinian Authority to provide social services for the poor, and setting up facilities that improve the flow of people and goods between Israeli and Palestinian areas."
Ereli was asked if the $350 million was separate from funds that had once been earmarked for the Palestinian Authority, but later frozen. He responded, "there's a figure of $200 million that one hears being bandied about. My understanding is ...that is a portion of the 350."