White House stays lukewarm on new Mideast peace plan

Sharon government irked by Powell meeting today

December 05, 2003|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - The White House moved yesterday to stifle a dispute between the United States and Israel set off by Secretary of State Colin L. Powell's planned meeting today with the authors of a high-profile Middle East peace plan opposed by the government of Ariel Sharon.

The unofficial peace plan, known as the Geneva Accord, is the latest in a series of challenges to Sharon's tough approach to the Palestinians. It comes at a time of calls from within the Israeli security establishment for a policy shift and of signs of a growing willingness by the Israeli public to consider a major peace initiative.

Powell angered Israeli leaders recently by sending a letter of encouragement to the Geneva Accord's authors, Yossi Beilin and Yasser Abed Rabbo. This week, he refused to back down from plans to meet with the pair after Israel's vice premier, Ehud Olmert, publicly questioned Powell's judgment.

But President Bush gave only a qualified endorsement to Powell's plans, and he made clear yesterday that he was not about to be pushed into changing his own step-by-step approach to ending the conflict as outlined in the so-called road map, launched early this year.

Bush stressed that any plan must stick to his guidelines, which place top priority on combating terrorism and fostering a new, democratic Palestinian leadership before negotiations can begin on a two-state solution to the decades-long conflict.

"I think it's productive, so long as they adhere to the principles I have just outlined," Bush told reporters.

"And that is, we must fight off terror, that there must be security, and there must be the emergence of a Palestinian state that is democratic and free," he said before a White House meeting with Jordan's King Abdullah.

Meanwhile, a request by Beilin and Abed Rabbo to meet with Bush's national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, and her deputy, Stephen Hadley, was turned down, and their meeting with Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz was scratched.

Bush's statement yesterday fit a pattern of not getting too far out of step with Israel and a desire to keep strong White House control over Middle East policy.

No U.S. push expected

One U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said any major American push in the near future to end the decades-long Israeli-Palestinian conflict was unlikely.

"Does this mean the White House is going to take on the Sharon government on the eve of an election year as we face a mess in Iraq?" the official said. "I'd be skeptical."

Rice and her Middle East adviser, Elliott Abrams, have emerged over the past year as the Sharon government's chief points of contact in Washington, sidelining Powell and State Department regional specialists.

The Geneva Accords present the most comprehensive plan to date for settling the sensitive issues that have bedeviled Israeli and Palestinian negotiators for years, but they call for concessions far beyond what the Sharon government is prepared to offer. It was developed over nearly three years of private talks between Beilin, a left-wing former Israeli Cabinet minister, and Abed Rabbo, a member of the Palestine Liberation Organization executive committee.

The accord's sponsors say that its provisions fill a major gap in the U.S.-backed road map for Mideast Peace, which concentrates on the steps by both sides in advance of negotiations but avoids spelling out terms for a final agreement.

They propose an Israeli-Palestinian border roughly along 1967 lines, concentrating about 75 percent of the West Bank's Jewish settlers within several large settlement blocs. Jerusalem would be divided into Israeli and Palestinian capitals, with Palestinians gaining sovereignty over the Temple Mount, or Haram al-Sharif, which is sacred to Jews and Muslims. Israel would have sovereignty over the adjacent Western Wall, and the majority of Palestinian refugees would be barred from returning to their original homes inside Israel.

Widening support

The accords, formally unveiled Monday, have drawn strong encouragement from European governments and former U.S. Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, both of whom made Arab-Israeli peace a key foreign policy goal.

They have provoked fierce controversy among Israelis, many of whom associate Beilin with the failed 1993 Oslo agreement, and Palestinians, who fear a sellout of refugees' rights.

But a recent opinion poll by the James A. Baker Institute and the International Crisis Group showed that 53 percent of Israelis and 55 percent of Palestinians support the main outlines of the accords.

The accords are just the latest challenge to the Sharon government's policies, which combine continued strong military pressure against Palestinian militants with the expansion of West Bank settlements and the erection of a separation barrier that cuts into Palestinian territory. Signs of dissatisfaction are mounting even within the Israeli security establishment.

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