Israel backers are raising numerous concerns about the latest version of the U.S. "road map" for Middle East peace.
Analysts and Jewish leaders say the latest version, currently being hammered out in Washington, diverges from President Bush's June 24 speech, in which he called for new Palestinian leaders and said a Palestinian state could be created only after significant institutional reforms. They also say Israel has not been consulted enough in the preparation of the document.
Also of concern is the fact that the State Department, which is considered to be softer on the Palestinians, is working on the plan, rather than the White House, whose views on the conflict are considered closer to Israel's.
"The concern is that some of the key players credited with crafting Bush's speech are now focused on Iraq," said one official with a Jewish organization. "Some of the other folks in the State Department have moved to fill the vacuum."
Israel has complained that it learned about the revised road map only from news reports. Housing and Construction Minister Natan Sharansky raised some of Israel's concerns during a visit to Washington last week.
Conceived in conjunction with America's "quartet" partners -- the United Nations, European Union and Russia -- the road map has been under revision for more than a month, addressing concerns raised by all sides.
It is expected to be released when quartet leaders meet in Washington on Dec. 20. Israeli officials want the release postponed until after Israeli elections on Jan. 28.
The road map calls for a three-stage approach leading to an interim Palestinian state in 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 demands the appointment of a new Palestinian Authority Cabinet and the creation of a prime minister's post. It also demands that Israel improve humanitarian conditions for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and dismantle any settlement outposts created under the Sharon government.
Later, it would require the Palestinians to write a constitution. It also calls for a monitoring system led by the quartet to ensure that the two sides meet their commitments. In addition, the road map calls on Israel to withdraw troops from all areas occupied since the Palestinian uprising 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, due in 2004 and 2005, calls for a second conference and negotiations toward a final peace agreement.
The new version does not address some of the fundamental concerns that Israel raised last month. Specifically, Israel is concerned that the road map does not repeat Bush's demand for a change in Palestinian leadership and does not set standards that the Palestinians must meet before the sides progress from stage to stage.
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.
"We've had very negative experiences with timelines in the past," an Israeli official said.
Israel is also not happy that quartet members -- three of whom it considers biased toward the Palestinians -- will serve as monitors, playing a role that until now has been filled by the United States.
The new version speaks of moving through the process with the "consensus" opinion of the quartet -- essentially giving the United States veto power -- but Israeli officials argue that isn't enough. They want any monitoring to be left solely to the United States.
Several analysts say that, unlike Bush's June 24 speech, the road map essentially allows Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat to remain in power. Bush also said that no Palestinian state could be created until the Palestinian leaders "engage in a sustained fight against the terrorists and dismantle their infrastructure."
Israel has complained that the security steps the plan demands of the Palestinians are too vague.
"The road map is not faithful to Bush's June 24 speech, which makes crystal clear that removal of Yasser Arafat is a prerequisite of any American diplomatic initiative," said David Makovsky, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Also of concern is the lack of consequences for Palestinian noncompliance.
If the road map is released next month, it will come during national elections in Israel, where Haifa's dovish mayor, Amram Mitzna, will lead the Labor Party. The Likud leadership was to be decided in a Nov. 28 primary, with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon a heavy favorite to defeat his challenger, Foreign Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Israeli officials have been asking for the release to be postponed until after the Jan. 28 national elections. Sharansky made the request in Washington last week, but so far the United States has resisted.
"We haven't made any decisions in terms of announcements or anything," State Department spokesman Philip Reeker said last week.
Releasing the road map during the election campaign would be seen as a gift for Mitzna, who has said he will meet with any Palestinian leader, including Arafat. Sharon has refused to meet with Arafat because of Arafat's ties to terror groups.
However, Martin Indyk, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel, said Monday that postponing the release would be as much an act of interference in Israeli politics as releasing it. He also suggested that Sharon would not be hampered by the road map.
"He needs to show the Israeli electorate not only that he can fight terrorism, but that he has a way out of the process," Indyk said at a forum at the Brookings Institution, where he is a senior fellow. "He needs to support it."
Indyk also said that based on the fate of other peace plans presented over the past two years, Sharon knows there is little chance the road map will be implemented. Therefore, Indyk said, he has little to lose by supporting the plan.
Makovsky speculated that the United States may be insisting on releasing the document quickly to strengthen U.S. attempts to woo Arab support for a potential attack on Iraq.
"Introducing the document at such a sensitive juncture, very little can be accomplished," he said. "It makes me wonder if Arab states are seeking to insist upon the quartet's passage of the road map as a prerequisite for their acquiescence to the American actions in Iraq."
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