U.S. to offer peace plan for Mideast

A more aggressive role, proposals to break logjam

May 29, 2002|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - The United States has decided to tell Israelis and Palestinians what a peace agreement should look like and in coming weeks will develop broad proposals to solve the explosive issues of Jerusalem, borders and the fate of refugees, officials said yesterday.

The decision to inject itself forcefully into the stalled peace process may put the Bush administration at odds with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who opposes negotiating a final peace deal in the near future and has staked out seemingly uncompromising positions on the sharing of Jerusalem and the shape of a Palestinian state.

However, the planned U.S. move is likely to fall short of demands by Palestinians and moderate Arab leaders for rapid progress in ending Israeli occupation in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

The initiative signals a more aggressive American role in the Middle East conflict that will gain momentum this week with trips to the region by William Burns, assistant secretary of state for the Near East, and CIA Director George J. Tenet. Burns left Washington last night for a six-nation tour. Tenet is expected to leave Friday, officials said.

The new approach follows weeks in which President Bush and other officials spoke repeatedly of a vision of two states - Israel and Palestine - living side by side, but avoided saying how the United States thought that goal could be achieved.

Officials have not decided exactly what the Bush administration will propose on any of the big issues that have proved to be insurmountable stumbling blocks in the past. Nor have they decided how to present them, whether before, during or after a planned conference of foreign ministers this summer.

Besides trying to spell out what the Bush vision means in practice, the administration will work to transform the Palestinian Authority into what a White House official called a "functioning state" in all but name by rebuilding its security apparatus, infrastructure, health care and educational institutions.

The stepped-up intervention comes despite diminished prospects for a halt to regional violence. The past week has seen a new wave of suicide bombings and fatal shootings by Palestinian militants and retaliatory Israeli incursions in the West Bank and killings of Palestinians suspected of terrorism.

In an ominous new development, Palestinian terrorists appear to have expanded their operations to include strategic targets such as the fuel depot where a bomb exploded last week. Israeli authorities claim to have foiled a plot to set off an explosion at the Azrieli Towers, the tallest buildings in Tel Aviv.

U.S. officials now say they must simultaneously help Israel bolster security while pursuing a political solution in the Middle East, to give Palestinian leaders an incentive to crack down on terror and violence.

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said yesterday in Italy, where he was traveling with Bush, that the United States was not ready to "table an American plan with specific deadlines."

"When we get reports back from Mr. Tenet and from Ambassador Burns, and we consult with a lot of other people, we will start to integrate all this information and see what next steps should be taken," he said.

Bush, in a speech April 4, began to lay out what would be required for a two-state solution, calling for an end to Israel's occupation in the West Bank and Gaza, a Palestinian state that is "politically and economically viable" and the right of Israel to live within secure and recognized borders.

Since then, Bush has met with Sharon and Arab leaders from Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Jordan and Lebanon. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who visited Washington this spring, returns June 5 for meetings with Bush and other top officials.

Now, a senior official said, the Bush administration is "taking a vision that has already been put out there and elaborating on it, making it more specific and more real. We're still discussing the best way or the best time to do it."

The new approach marks a recognition that the step-by-step peace process of the past has been a failure, officials said.

The 1993 Oslo accords purposely left the most contentious issues - the status of Jerusalem, where to establish Israel's permanent borders and the fate of up to 4 million Palestinian refugees uprooted in 1948 when Israel became a state - to be settled by future talks. This caused Israelis and Palestinians to approach each intermediate stage with a view to influencing the final outcome in their favor.

"We don't believe it's credible to move forward in an incremental way without a clear understanding of the endgame," a senior Bush administration official said yesterday.

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