WASHINGTON (Dec. 22)
The White House is continuing its attempt to react to the concerns of all sides in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Members of the Bush administration met last Friday at the White House with the other members of the diplomatic “Quartet” — the European Union, United Nations and Russia — working for an end to the conflict. While the group did not officially unveil its “road map” toward Mideast peace, the text of the plan was finalized. Drafts of the plan, which envisions the creation of a Palestinian state within three years, have been circulating for months.
The government of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has argued that making the plan public now would constitute interference in Israel’s Jan. 28 elections.
In deference to Sharon’s request, Bush was able to keep the Quartet from unveiling the plan.
Israeli officials also had complained that draft versions did not incorporate specific demands that Bush made of the Palestinians in a June 24 speech.
Last Friday, Bush said that he stands by that speech, which demanded extensive reform of the Palestinian Authority and the replacement of the P.A. leadership, which Bush said was compromised by terrorism, as a condition for Palestinian statehood.
“I am strongly committed to the vision that I outlined on June the 24th,” Bush said. “I believe it is in everybody’s best interests that there be two states living side by side in peace, and this government will work hard to achieve that.”
Bush called the road map “a part of the vision I described.”
He also expressed strong support for the international community’s role in Middle East peacemaking. Israel has been apprehensive about allowing countries other than the United States to play a mediator role, feeling that the other Quartet members are biased toward the Palestinians.
After the meeting, the Quartet released a statement calling for an immediate cease-fire and demanding that “All Palestinian individuals and groups must end all acts of terror against Israelis, in any location.”
It also called on Israel to withdraw troops from the West Bank “as calm is established.”
Administration officials attempted to make clear last Friday that the delay in unveiling the road map did not mean the United States would be any less involved.
“By the time the road map is released, you’ll see that some of the things in the road map have already been done, and the goal is to make sure as many of those things as possible are being done because those are the important issues right now,” State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said. “What the road map really does is takes these issues and things that we’re doing now and shows how they can be extended in the future, with the obligations of both parties, to achieve that goal in three years.”
Boucher mentioned plans for Israel to transfer additional tax revenue to the Palestinian Authority and continue to improve humanitarian conditions for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
The road map envisions three phases that would include an interim Palestinian state in parts of the West Bank and Gaza next year, and 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 the power of Arafat, the P.A. president.
It also demands that Israel 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 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 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 mostly has been left out of the drafting process.
Stephen P. Cohen, a national scholar with the Israel Policy Forum, said he believes “everybody got what they needed” from last Friday’s meeting.
The text of the road map will be released, most likely by the United Nations, before Israel’s elections.
But, at least for now, it won’t have U.S. endorsement, Cohen said.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan hinted at that last Friday.
“As you heard in the Oval Office, we are determined to finalize this plan” as soon as possible “and release it to the parties and press ahead,” Annan said after the meeting. “We all agree that that is the only solution.”
Cohen said that while the United States may move on to other issues — such as an attack on Iraq — it won’t abandon the road map.
“You now have an offramp,” Cohen said. “The action by the other members of the Quartet will keep this going until the next phase, the next time the president seizes the issue.”
The United States is reluctant to move boldly on the Israeli-Palestinian track as long as the administration is focused primarily on Iraq. However, some believe that U.S. endorsement of the road map is key to building European and Arab support for an attack on Iraq.
Focus on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will shift to London next month, when British Prime Minister Tony Blair discusses reforms with Palestinian leaders.