Israel rift may hinder U.S. plans in Mideast

Bush hopes to allay fears of Arabs created by war

War In Iraq

April 09, 2003|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM - New tensions between the United States and Israel over a U.S.-backed "road map" for ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict underscore the problems the Bush administration may face in ushering in a new, peaceful era in the Middle East when war ends in Iraq.

President Bush said yesterday that he and British Prime Minister Tony Blair remain serious about the road map and that it will be made public after the new Palestinian prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas, forms a government, which could occur this week.

Israeli officials, however, have said they have a list of reservations about the plan, and an aide to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is expected to fly to Washington to explain the government's objections this week.

Several previous attempts by the United States to end the 30 months of fighting between the Israelis and Palestinians have failed, but the Bush administration is eager to have signs of progress to ease mistrust generated in the Arab world by the war against Iraq.

"Everyone in the Middle East is watching this very carefully," said Saeb Erekat, a Palestinian negotiator and Cabinet minister. "Another broken promise would be handing a victory to the extremist elements. Another broken promise from the West will have a devastating impact on the region."

"We're committed to implementing the road map toward peace," Bush told reporters, adding that he is "willing to spend the same amount of energy in the Middle East" as Blair has done to restore some order in Northern Ireland.

The plan calls for Israel to make a series of concessions, such as withdrawing troops occupying the West Bank and halting Jewish settlements, in exchange for a Palestinian crackdown on militant groups waging armed attacks on Israelis.

Israeli officials want the Palestinians to make concessions before Israel takes any significant steps.

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said this week that the United States is "ready to engage in a very forceful way" but cautioned that the road map's conditions could not be imposed on either side.

Bush has made the issue of settlements a core theme, and it is high on the road-map list. But Israeli leaders repeated this week that settlements would be discussed only during final talks and not during the early stages of a peace plan. That could doom the road map from the start.

Danny Rubinstein, a columnist for the Haaretz newspaper, wrote that the future of Jewish settlements could be harder to resolve than ending Palestinian violence. "A social and political earthquake in Israel will be needed to stop the development of the settlements and to freeze their growth," Rubinstein wrote this week. "There is not a chance that the government of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon will even get anywhere near this road map."

By conditionally agreeing to the road map, Israeli leaders say, they are agreeing with a June speech by Bush, which said: "Peace requires a new Palestinian leadership not compromised by terror. If the Palestinian people meet these goals, they will be able to reach agreement with Israel."

Israeli officials interpret Bush's remarks as meaning that he agrees the Palestinians must meet a series of conditions before the road map can be considered. In other remarks, Bush indicated that each side would be allowed to comment on the road map, seen by Israel as an opening to negotiate each point.

"I think the government of Israel is committed to the president's June speech," Dore Gold, a former foreign policy adviser to Sharon, said in an interview. "To a large extent, the road map distorts some elements of that speech. What Israel is trying to do is restore the original Bush proposal."

Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom told a parliamentary committee this week that Israel would not accept the road map until the Palestinians made a concerted effort to stop violence.

Palestinian leaders remain frustrated with Israel's response, unconvinced that the United States is serious about ending the conflict. They believe the appointment of Abbas as prime minister fulfills the first step of the road map, which demands government reform, and they are waiting for Israel to reciprocate.

"I think that Sharon is very serious about not going ahead with the road map," Erekat said.

Erekat said the key to the plan's working is for Israel to end settlements.

Dov Weisglass, head of Sharon's office, told Israeli Radio that he is ready to sit down and talk with Abbas as soon as his Cabinet is formed. But he stressed that Sharon would reject any plan that includes a timetable and that any steps taken by Israel would be based only on concessions taken by the Palestinians.

Sharon faces stiff opposition in his right-wing Cabinet for considering the road map. Several members want him to reject the plan outright, but Sharon does not want to risk angering the United States.

Highlighting the sensitivity of the subject, Sharon refused this week to present his Cabinet with a specific list of objections to the road map and would not reveal precisely what alternative Weisglass was instructed to discuss with the White House.

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