U.S. leans on Israel to help establish Palestinians state in 2004

Special to World
Tuesday, December 16, 2003

JERUSALEM The United States has pressed Israel to facilitate the establishment of a Palestinian state in 2004.

Israeli and U.S. diplomatic sources said the Bush administration has discussed with Israel measures to ensure an interim Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip by mid-2004. The sources said the measures being proposed include a Palestinian ceasefire in the war against Israel and a military withdrawal from areas captured in the 1967 war.

"The United States wants a measure of stability over the next year in the Middle East that would allow for the success of efforts in Iraq," a diplomatic source said. "This would mean unilateral Israeli measures over the next few months."

The discussions to renew efforts to establish a Palestinian state began in November amid the formation of a new government by Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei. The U.S. meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his aides focused on creating conditions for an interim Palestinian state without PA fulfillment of U.S. demands to dismantle insurgency groups.

The administration had planned to establish an interim Palestinian state by the end of 2003. But the collapse of the Palestinian ceasefire in August and the resignation of then-Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas torpedoed the U.S. timetable.

Abbas resigned under threats from PA Chairman Yasser Arafat and his aides in a move that many in the State Department blamed on Israel. Senior State Department officials said Israel undermined Abbas by hesitating to withdraw from areas of the West Bank and Gaza Strip and failing to ease restrictions on Palestinians.

By November, the sources said, Israel and the United States agreed that Abbas's successor, Qurei, would not institute democratic reforms or crack down on insurgency groups. At that point, the administration proposed a series of meetings with younger-generation Palestinians expected to be influential in a post-Arafat Palestinian society as well as measures that would preserve the option of a Palestinian state with permanent borders by 2005.

The administration requested that Israel commit to withdrawing from large areas of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, dismantle unauthorized outposts and refrain from large-scale military operations in PA-controlled territory.

Another request relayed by President George Bush was that Israel maintain its pledge to safeguard Arafat.

"We also have made clear to the Israelis, as the president has in his public statements, that they have obligations as well," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said on Thursday, "and that we're looking for ways for the parties to move forward on the roadmap to produce some progress for the sake of the people on both sides."

Israeli officials said the administration suggested unilateral measures by the military as early as mid-2003 when Washington was trying to implement the international plan for a roadmap. The suggestions became more pronounced after the resignation of Abbas in September and the acceleration of the security fence.

"We conceded Greater Israel when we accepted the roadmap," Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said. "The acceptance of the roadmap meant the concession of almost all of Judea, Samaria [West Bank] and the Gaza Strip."

The U.S. effort demands an immediate Israeli withdrawal from unauthorized outposts in the West Bank, the sources said. They said a list of outposts was discussed between U.S. ambassador to Israel, Daniel Kurtzer, and Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz. Kurtzer has insisted that inhabited outposts be included in the first stage of evacuations.

The administration stressed to Sharon that the United States would consider other international proposals to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict unless the Israeli government launched its own plan to reduce tension with the Palestinians.

On Friday, Secretary of State Colin Powell plans to welcome the architects of an Israeli-Palestinian peace program. Former Israeli security chief Ami Ayalon and Palestinian university chief Sari Nusseibeh will meet Powell and senior White House officials as part of the U.S. effort to prod Sharon to launch his own initiative to facilitate a Palestinian state. This is the second time in as many weeks that Powell has met with Israeli opposition elements to discuss their peace initiatives.

The sources said the U.S. requests for Israeli unilateral measures were described as a means to avoid international pressure on the Jewish state They said Sharon had relayed his commitment to an interim Palestinian state by July 2004, a timetable meant to coincide with the administration's intention to form a permanent government in Iraq.

Next week, Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom meets Powell and senior U.S. officials. Shalom is expected to discuss Sharon's plan for unilateral withdrawal from areas of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

"Israel will have to dismantle outposts and evacuate all of Gaza, even unilaterally," Ephraim Halevy, the outgoing head of Israel's National Security Council, said. "We have become resigned to the intervention of international forces."

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