U.S. sends mixed messages in Mideast

Sharon freely resists making concessions

April 13, 2003|By Howard Witt | Howard Witt,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

WASHINGTON - Even as they pledge to revive peace negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians, White House officials are sending mixed messages about how hard they intend to press Israel to make reciprocal concessions to match Palestinian reforms.

President Bush - at the urging of British Prime Minister Tony Blair - promised last week to implement his administration's "road map" for peace. The initiative has yet to be formally introduced, and already it is running into trouble.

Delayed by the White House for months at the request of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who objects to many of its provisions, the release of the plan awaits the successful completion of efforts by the new Palestinian prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas, to assemble a reform-minded Cabinet.

White House officials consider that a key step to pry some powers away from Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, whom Bush and Sharon have refused to deal with because of what they perceive as his support for the violent Palestinian uprising that began in September 2000.

Meanwhile, Israel, with encouragement from strong supporters in Congress, is demanding amendments to the plan that some Mideast experts fear will scuttle it before it has a chance to succeed.

"I see little evidence that the administration intends to put real pressure on both parties, not just the Palestinians, to implement the road map as written," said Henry Siegman, director of the U.S.-Middle East Project at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Siegman said the fact that Sharon is not making a bigger fuss about Bush's plans suggests he does not believe the president will demand major concessions from Israel.

`An important sign'

"Sharon has not been hysterical about the road map, and that's an important sign," Siegman said. "As someone who has followed the Mideast conflict for many years, I suspect very strongly that Sharon's confidence that he doesn't have much to worry about is based on an understanding with the White House."

The plan calls for a series of reciprocal steps from Palestinians and Israelis to reduce violence and build trust, leading to the establishment of an independent Palestinian state by 2005. As Palestinians introduce security and political reforms and crack down on terrorism, Israel is expected to pull back troops simultaneously from Gaza and the West Bank and freeze its settlement activities in the Palestinian territories.

But Israel is insisting on a sequential approach, arguing that it should not be expected to make concessions until it is certain that Palestinian reforms are genuine and that Palestinian authorities are earnestly cracking down on extremists bent on staging suicide attacks.

"The feeling in Israel is that we have the upper hand with groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad," said an Israeli official in Washington. "We've gone down from one or two successful suicide bombings a day at this time last year to one getting through now every two or three months. We've got them on the run. No one wants a situation where a cease-fire is a cover for these terrorists to regroup."

Doubt on altering plan

Publicly, at least, White House officials insist that the plan is not open to the kind of endless negotiation over details that derailed other peace initiatives.

"We don't believe there is more negotiation to be done," Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage said last week. "The negotiations, the talk as we go into the future, should be between the two parties."

But Bush last month invited "contributions" to the plan from Israelis and Palestinians, which some analysts believe leaves the door open for amendments. That also appears to be the interpretation of Sharon, whose sustained military crackdown against Palestinian extremists has won strong support from Bush. The Israeli prime minister plans to submit 15 "reservations" about the road map to the White House.

"On these issues, we will not make any concessions, and if we have to, we will leave the negotiating table and come home," Dov Weisglass, Sharon's chief of staff, told Israel Radio last week.

Sharon told a Tel Aviv audience Tuesday that "Israel accepts the principles of the vision of President Bush for peace in the Middle East." But he added: "I am willing to pay a painful price for the benefit of peace, but it should be understood ... we will not agree to a peace on paper that will be based on empty slogans and on mirages that will endanger the security of Israel."

Most Palestinians - and some Middle East analysts - doubt Sharon's sincerity, especially his willingness to limit and ultimately roll back the dozens of Israeli settlements that now mark the West Bank lands that Palestinians claim as their own.

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