New U.S. Middle East envoy will find peace initiative stalled

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 13, 2008 

JERUSALEM — When President Bush kicked off renewed Middle East peace talks last fall, he made it clear that any lasting deal would depend upon the ability of Israeli and Palestinian leaders to make daily life better.

On Friday, the Bush administration's newest Middle East envoy will hold his first joint meeting with Israeli and Palestinian leaders to get an update — and it's not likely to inspire confidence.

In the three months since Bush launched his diplomatic initiative at a summit in Annapolis, Md., in November, there's been little progress by either side on meeting administration benchmarks.

Semimonthly peace talks between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas have been postponed in the wake of an especially bloody surge in violence.

Hamas hard-liners still control the Gaza Strip.

And the Bush administration is heading into the final stretch when its power and influence will flicker out.

"I don't see anything moving," said Uri Dromi, a former spokesman for the late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin who's now a political consultant.

In Annapolis, the Bush administration officials made their formula clear: For peace talks to gain traction, Israel had to remove illegal settlements from the West Bank and scale back its network of roadblocks there. The Palestinians, Bush said, had to crack down on rogue militants in the West Bank and establish law and order.

Bush named Army Lt. Gen. William Fraser to head the administration's oversight of those goals. He's to meet with Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad on Friday, then brief Bush officials on what he hears.

Israeli leaders are bracing for sharp criticism.

Under the Bush administration's phased-in diplomatic road map, Israel was supposed to "take no actions undermining trust" and immediately freeze "all settlement activity" — including expansion due to natural growth.

Since Annapolis, however, Israel has approved the construction of hundreds of homes in Arab East Jerusalem and the surrounding West Bank. The construction plans have undermined Palestinian confidence in Israeli intentions and drawn unusually pointed public rebukes from the Bush administration.

"The United States considers the expansion of settlement activity to be not consistent with Israeli obligations under the road map, and we have made that very clear," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told Congress on Wednesday. "I have also said that it is certainly not helpful for the peace process."

Olmert spokesman Mark Regev disputed any suggestions that Israel was backsliding.

"The current Israeli government has gone farther than any previous government in limiting settlement growth," Regev said.

Israel never agreed to prevent building in East Jerusalem or to limit building in existing settlements, Regev added.

"We never committed to a complete freeze," he said.

Israel also has made no headway in meeting another road map obligation: dismantling at least two dozen smaller, illegal West Bank settlements.

As for the roadblocks, which Bush administration officials say slow Palestinian economic development, Israel has added more of them throughout the West Bank.

In the past three months, according to the United Nations, the number of Israeli checkpoints, barriers, gates and other obstacles has grown from 561 to 580.

Regev said it's difficult for Israel to cut back on roadblocks until the Palestinian Authority does more to crack down on militants looking to attack Israel.

"Israel is willing to take calculated risks, but we're not willing to take irrational risks," Regev said.

Israeli confidence in the Palestinians took a blow last week when a Palestinian gunman killed eight young students at a prominent Jewish religious school in Jerusalem.

Although the assailant lived in East Jerusalem and carried an Israeli-issued identity card, Israeli officials said the attack showed that Abbas needs to do more to contain militants.

Ever since Hamas seized military control of the Gaza Strip last June, the United States has stepped up its attempts to train and fund a professional Palestinian security force to counter it.

With Israeli and American blessings, Arab neighbors have provided Palestinian forces with new uniforms, weapons, SUVs and other military gear.

As part of a new U.S.-backed program, more than 700 Palestinian soldiers are training in neighboring Jordan at the same facility that the United States used to train Iraqi soldiers.

The Palestinian Authority has received tentative praise for using the new forces to impose order in Nablus, a West Bank city that's considered fertile ground for militants looking to sabotage the peace process.

But, so far, the security initiative has yet to expand significantly beyond Nablus.

"We are coming along," said veteran Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat. "I'm not saying we have done everything we need to do, but we are trying. We need more time and more help."

One of the biggest obstacles facing the Palestinians is the Gaza Strip.

Israeli leaders have warned that Gaza and its Hamas leaders could face a major military crackdown if they don't stop firing crude rockets into southern Israel.

On Thursday, a brief, tenuous calm ended when Gaza militants fired their first sustained rocket attacks in nearly a week. The resumption came in response to overnight Israeli military raids in the West Bank that led to the deaths of five Palestinian militants, including prominent leaders of Islamic Jihad, the militant group responsible for much of the rocket fire from Gaza.

In response to the renewed rocket attacks, Israel resumed airstrikes on Gaza targets.

McClatchy Newspapers 2008

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