RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made a surprise visit to Beirut today. There she conferred with the leaders of Lebanon's new government. Rice flew to the Lebanese capital from Israel after a meeting with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, talks that focused on Israel's upcoming withdrawal from Gaza Strip. She meets tomorrow with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. This is her third trip to the region. NPR's Linda Gradstein is in Jerusalem, and I ask her what the expectations are for this trip.
LINDA GRADSTEIN reporting:
Well, the expectations aren't really that high. The idea is for her to sort of check in with both the Israeli and Palestinian officials and to make sure that Israel's planned withdrawal from Gaza, which is supposed to begin in the middle of August, goes off smoothly. An Israeli official, after the meeting, told me that Israel would like there to be more coordination with the Palestinian Authority, both for the withdrawal and for what happens afterwards, and so Secretary Rice is sort of acting as a go-between.
There are still some very big issues that haven't been finalized. For example, what happens to the houses after Israel leaves? And during the Gaza withdrawal, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has said repeatedly that Israel will not withdraw under fire. So Israel wants promises from the Palestinian Authority that there will not be violence during the withdrawal, and the Palestinians want promises from Israel that at the same time as the Gaza withdrawal Sharon will not use as an excuse to continue to expand Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
MONTAGNE: And I gather this meeting with Prime Minister Sharon was hastily arranged. What's the urgency on that?
GRADSTEIN: Well, the trip was not planned. The urgency was because last week, there was sort of a spurt of violence. There was a suicide bombing in Netanya, Israel, that killed five Israelis. Israel then launched a series of air strikes that killed at least seven gunmen from the Islamist Hamas movement. Palestinians were firing rockets and mortars at southern Israel and at Jewish settlements in Gaza. One Israeli woman was killed, and so there was this kind of new outbreak of violence, and I think that she wanted to sort of say to both sides, `Wait, we've got to calm this situation down.'
It's coming just before Israel's planned withdrawal from Gaza, which is a really major sort of--in Israeli society, it's extremely controversial. There have been some very big protests and I think there was a sense that things were kind of getting out of control. There's also been some infighting between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority. You know, there have been some gun battles. So I think, you know, the idea was she wanted to come and just try to calm things down and get the Gaza withdrawal back on track.
MONTAGNE: Could this turn into then something of a shuttle mission?
GRADSTEIN: That's certainly possible. The fact that she's come three times this year is much more than her predecessor has, and I think it's a sign from the Bush administration that they are willing to be involved in the Middle East peace process on a more sort of micro level. The fact that she's come so much, and she said the last time she was here that she expects to be visiting fairly frequently in the next few months, so that's certainly a possibility that she will be coming back.
MONTAGNE: Now there's been some talk that the withdrawal from Gaza may be moved up. What do you know about that?
GRADSTEIN: Well, yesterday Israel's vice premier, Ehud Olmert, who in the past has been sort of known as the man who sets off trial balloons for Ariel Sharon, said it might be a good idea to make the withdrawal earlier. He was speaking this past week. There was a three-day demonstration. Started off with about 30,000 Israelis opposed to the Gaza withdrawal who wanted to march toward Gaza. Israel declared the demonstration illegal, stopped buses on the way. About--a lot of people still get in and the army says hundreds of people have been slipping into Gaza. Some Israeli officials are saying, `Why wait? We should just go ahead and do this before more people can get into Gaza,' who would then resist the army and the police when they came to do the withdrawal.
MONTAGNE: Thanks very much, NPR's Linda Gradstein in Jerusalem.
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