WASHINGTON -- Bush administration officials are exploring ways to transform the president's unspecific promise to resolve the Palestinian issue into a concrete peace process based on principles he outlined in his State of the Union message.
Following his trip to the Middle East two weeks ago, Secretary of State James Baker met in Washington last week with several Mideast officials, including representatives of Jordan, Egypt and West Bank Palestinians as well as the Israeli ambassador, Zalman Shoval.
Among the ideas being discussed is one for a regional conference in which both the United States and the Soviet Union would take part to begin consideration on two tracks: Israeli-Arab problems and the Israeli-Palestinian question.
A new proposal that emerged last week to address the Palestinian issue would combine advance commitment of the Arab states to a timetable toward recognition of Israel in return for Israel's recognition of a Palestinian state. International security guarantees and economic development provisions would be in the deal.
Given previous experience, the two-track approach proposed by Baker "has slim prospects of achieving the desired results," according to Hisham Sharabi, chairman of the Center for Policy Analysis on Palestine.
Mr. Sharabi pointed to a plan developed by James Zogby of the Arab-American Institute and currently circulating within the administration. That plan seeks to offer both sides incentives attractive enough to draw them into a process with clear stages of implementation.
The plan would commit the United States, the Arab states and the U.N. Security Council to its provisions before it is presented to Israel and the Palestinians.
In his State of the Union speech March 6, Mr. Bush specifically referred to "the principle of territory for peace," a concept often rejected by Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir. "This principle," Mr. Bush said, "must be elaborated to provide for Israel's security and recognition, and at the same time for legitimate-Palestinian political rights.
"Anything else would fail the twin tests of fairness and security," he said.
The new plan's main benefit, according to its proponents, is that it combines advance commitments to the goals important to both sides with a process for achieving them. It also leaves difficult details to a negotiation of "final-status" issues that occurs only after both sides have tasted the benefit of regional economic integration and security.
The package includes a peace incentive fund of about $20 billion in international contributions for Israeli and Palestinian economic development and resettlement as well as U.N. peacekeeping forces to meet the requirements of each community.
The plan would require formal acceptance by Israel and the Palestine National Council that would lead directly to Israeli withdrawal from occupied territories and Arab agreement to end the state of belligerency with Israel.
Simultaneous with Israeli withdrawal, the participating Arab states would announce their acceptance of Israel's permanence and legitimacy as a state, and a U.N. force would assure security in the formerly occupied territories until a later stage.
A political team from the United Nations would establish a timetable for free elections within six months for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza for local functions as well as a Palestinian interim government. At the end of this six-month phase, the Arab states would end their economic embargo against Israel. Both sides would refrain from unilateral action on borders and Jewish settlements until the "final-stage" talks.
After a year, the Arab states and Israel would begin negotiations under U.N. auspices on regional issues, including water and arms control. Both sides could draw from the peace initiative fund in this stage and the Palestinian interim government could establish a law allowing return of Palestinians from abroad.
At the end of three years, the U.N. Security Council would convene a conference of all parties to resolve final-status issues through direct negotiations individually between Israel and the governments of Syria, Lebanon and Palestine. These issues would include the status of settlements and settlers, final borders and security arrangements.
Upon completion of that process, the Arab states would offer formal diplomatic recognition to Israel. The conference would give formal recognition to an independent state of Palestine and admit it as a full member of the United Nations.
Administration officials declined to comment directly on the proposal. But one official who spoke on condition of anonymity said "there are constructive things in it," but added that "no endorsement of it had been sought and no endorsement was given." He said the administration encouraged contributions to the debate.
Hyman Bookbinder of the American Jewish Committee said, "The idea of laying out a program of incremental steps is not
wrong, but there can be no process possible that Israel will participate in unless there is a premise that Arab nations say, 'We want to take part and we recognize the place for a Jewish state in principle.'
"If that happens, enough Israeli leaders and people generally would be ready to [take steps] comparable to what [Egyptian President Anwar] Sadat did in 1977 and '78," he said, referring to the Camp David talks which led to an Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty and mutual diplomatic recognition.
The plan does not mention the Palestine Liberation Organization, with whom the Israeli government refuses to deal and without whom, Palestinians say, there can be no deal.
Mr. Zogby believes the PLO is committed to self-determination for Palestinians and a plan that assures that would not be rejected by the PLO if it includes "the reconstituion of their community and a law of return."