US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert
Photo: Gil Yohanan
The Bush administration has drawn up an eight-month timetable setting dates for when Israeli and Palestinian leaders would complete steps meant to bolster prospects for peace talks, US, Israeli and Palestinian officials said.
The US timeline, the first of its kind presented to both sides, includes specific dates for when Washington envisages Israel letting Palestinian bus and truck convoys travel between the Gaza Strip and the occupied West Bank, a demand that has raised some Israeli objections.
Washington, at the same time, has set dates for when Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah would step up deployment of his forces and take specific measures to begin curbing rocket fire by militants, officials who have read the document told Reuters.
The security moves by Abbas could bring a backlash from the armed wing of the ruling Hamas movement and other militant groups behind the rocket attacks, which, according to the US timeline, would come to an end before the end of 2007.
“Some of these (steps) are difficult,” acknowledged Abbas aide Saeb Erekat. “But it’s the right approach.”
'Benchmarks' for peaceIt is unclear how hard the Bush administration is prepared to push the parties to complete the list of so-called “benchmarks”, which are to be implemented between mid-May and the end of December.
Diplomats said US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was committed to the effort despite the hurdles, and that she hoped to draw up a blueprint, or “rubric”, that both sides would commit to, possibly in writing.
Some Israeli officials have raised concerns that Israel was being asked to ease restrictions on Palestinian movements without assurances that Abbas was completing his own commitments on security.
“Both sides agreed to benchmarks,” said a senior US official involved in the discussions. “The benchmarks give everyone an incentive. One side gets security. The other side gets greater (freedom) of movement.”
Another American official said initial reports that the benchmarks would exchange freedom of movement for increased security were inaccurate. “The purpose is to create a clear basis on which to help track these particular issues,” she said.
Washington hopes these measures will create conditions for final status negotiations, but the obstacles are many.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who has agreed to push forward with the benchmarks, could be forced out of office over his handling of last year’s Lebanon war.
Olmert’s government has so far refused to discuss final status issues with Abbas, whose Fatah faction has joined a Hamas-led unity government that does not recognise Israel or renounce violence as demanded by Western powers.
Israel worriedUS diplomats presented the list of benchmarks late last week to Israeli and Palestinian leaders but the details have not been publicly disclosed.
Israeli officials said most troubling for them was Washington’s decision to set specific dates for when Israel would begin allowing Palestinian bus and truck convoys to travel between the territories.
“There is not conditionality. Even if they don’t complete their obligations, we’ll have to complete ours,” a senior Israeli official said on condition of anonymity.
In November 2005, Israel agreed to the convoys as part of a broader agreement brokered by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. But the Israeli official said conditions had changed and that ruling Hamas group would use the convoys to extend its power to the West Bank.
In addition to allowing the convoys, the US Document sets specific dates for when Israel would remove roadblocks in the West Bank and extend operations at key Gaza border crossings.
It also includes specific dates when Abbas would increase police and troop deployments in the West Bank and Gaza, two officials familiar with the documents said.