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‘quartet’ Comes to Washington, but Prospects for Peace Unclear

As representatives of the diplomatic “Quartet” prepare to converge in Washington this week, the fate of the group’s plan for Mideast peace is unclear.

Envoys of the United Nations, European Union and Russia — which, with the United States, make up the Quartet — are due to meet with President Bush on Friday. Some type of statement on Mideast diplomacy is expected from the meeting.

Hopes initially had focused on the presentation of a revised “road map.” But with the United States stuck between its promise to delay the plan until after Israel’s Jan. 28 election and its desire to court Arab and European support ahead of a possible military attack on Iraq, no one seems sure what will emerge from the meeting.

Sources say Bush could enunciate his support for the road map’s principles, or even endorse a specific draft.

Israel and American Jewish leaders would like to see the former, while E.U. leaders have said they would like to see the road map formally adopted Friday, with clear timetables leading to a Palestinian state by 2005.

Sources say the Bush administration has promised European leaders that this week’s meeting will be serious and substantive, and that progress will be made on the timetable for a Palestinian state and for Israeli concessions — such as a withdrawal of troops from most of the West Bank and Gaza Strip and a freeze for developing Jewish settlements.

But the White House also has told Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon that nothing substantive will be decided until after the Israeli elections.

“The only thing that is clear is that the principals are coming here with a very high degree of skepticism,” said Henry Siegman, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. “Each of them considered not showing up because of indications by Washington that it did not want to see movement on the road map at this time.”

The meeting with Bush was scheduled to appease the other members of the Quartet, Siegman said. The other participants want the president to speak clearly and firmly in support of the draft plan and to state that it conforms to Bush’s Mideast vision, as laid out in a June 24 speech that called for new Palestinian leadership before diplomatic progress could be made.

Israel consistently has said it has concerns about the road map. Specifically, Israeli leaders say the plan does not repeat Bush’s demand for a change in Palestinian leadership and does not set firm standards the Palestinians must meet before the sides progress from step to step.

Israel wants the steps to be performance-based, not dictated by a timeline that runs regardless of how well the Palestinians honor their commitments, as was the case under the Oslo peace accords.

Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz reiterated that point in meetings with U.S. leaders this week, according to a senior Israeli defense official.

The road map calls for a three-staged approach leading to an interim Palestinian state in parts of the West Bank and Gaza Strip next year, and the creation of a permanent state by the end of 2005.

In the first stage, the plan calls for the appointment of a new Palestinian Authority Cabinet and the creation of a prime minister’s post, to dilute P.A. President Yasser Arafat’s power.

It also demands that Israel improve humanitarian conditions for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and dismantle any settlement outposts created since the Sharon government took office in March 2001.

Later, it would require the Palestinians to write a constitution. A monitoring system led by the Quartet would be set up to ensure that the two sides meet their commitments.

Israel also would be called on to withdraw troops from all areas occupied since the Palestinian intifada began in September 2000, and to freeze all settlement activity.

The second phase, which would run through the end of 2003, begins with Palestinian elections in January and an international conference to form a provisional Palestinian state.

The third phase, set for 2004 and 2005, calls for a second conference and negotiations toward a final peace agreement and a permanent Palestinian state.

Drafts of the plan have been written throughout the fall, and it is unclear whether additional changes have been made since the most recent draft was prepared in November. Israel claims it has been mostly left out of the drafting process.

Siegman, a former executive director of the American Jewish Congress, said the fate of the road map is in Bush’s hands.

“If the president does not embrace fully, without qualification, the road map, the whole initiative is dead,” he said.

But American Jewish leaders who met with Bush for a Chanukah celebration earlier this month say the president said he is committed to the principles of his June 24 address.

“His speech was a very meaningful, practical approach, and these principles ought to be adhered to,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

Hoenlein said it is difficult to comment on the road map drafts because there have been so many. It’s not clear which draft currently is prevailing, or whether there are still discrepancies between the current draft and Bush’s speech.

The Israel Policy Forum has called on Bush to put momentum behind the road map, including making American troops available to head an international observer force in the Palestinian areas. The idea is opposed by Israel and most American Jewish leaders, who worry about the perceived pro-Palestinian bias of the other Quartet members.

The United States has a vested interest in the road map: A perception that it is thoroughly behind the initiative will be welcomed by European and Arab states, whose support the United States seeks before any military action against Iraq.

To that end, the State Department last week unveiled a Middle East democratization program, designed to foster economic, political and educational development in a region that has lagged behind the rest of the world.

“Any approach to the Middle East that ignores its political, economic and educational underdevelopment will be built upon sand,” Powell said Dec. 12 at a Washington think tank. “It is time to lay a firm foundation of hope.”

The democratization project will have an initial budget of $29 million, with more money sought from Congress next year.

The international community would like to see a concrete U.S. plan for tackling the Israeli-Palestinian conflict after any war against Iraq.

Given its conflicting interests, the United States may do best to take no firm decisions at the meeting, thus keeping its promise to Israel while keeping its options open with European and Arab allies.

“The U.S. interest may not be served by moving too fast on the road map,” one Jewish official said.

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