Analysis / U.S. thinks time is ripe for a peace process
By Aluf Benn
The U.S. administration believes the time is ripe for moving ahead with a political peace process in the Middle East and it will present the road map to the sides immediately after Abu Mazen's government is approved next week.
This will be followed U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell's first visit to the region since April 2002.
Powell will be going to Syria, where he will press home Washington's insistence that Damascus not provide refuge to wanted Iraqi officials, cease support for terrorist groups residing in the Syrian capital and the Hezbollah in Lebanon, and stop developing weapons of mass destruction.
But he will also visit Israel and the Palestinian Authority and maybe other capitals in the region, with the Israeli-Palestinian process high on his agenda.
The Americans have high hopes about an expected meeting between Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian Prime Minister Abu Mazen, both because the two have met in the past and because, since Sharon took office in early 2001, there have been no face-to-face contacts between him and a Palestinian counterpart. Aside from two brief phone calls, there has been no direct dialogue between him and Yasser Arafat.
The Americans also believe the road map is potentially much more successful than previous plans, largely because it is the first plan that specifically delineates a two-state solution at the end of the process.
Israel believes the Americans generally understand the comments they had about the road map as presented last week in the White House by Sharon's bureau chief, Dov Weisglass, backed up by National Security Adviser Ephraim Halevy. The Americans were able to learn where the difficulties might arise as a result of Israeli concerns, but they also believe the Israeli worries are handled by the road map.
The main issue raised by Weisglass in his meeting with U.S. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and Powell was that the Palestinians give up their demand for a right of return for refugees in the early stage of the implementation of the road map, not at the end of the process. The road map nows designates the right of return issue as one of the items on the agenda at the end of the process, in its third stage, as part of the permanent settlement. Israel wants to trade "a state for the right of return," to make clear that the Palestinian state is the solution to the refugee problem, and not to leave the issue open.
Weisglass explained to the Americans that Israel is interested in the Palestinians declaring at the start of the process that they relinquish the right of return demand, parallel to an Israeli declaration about agreement to a Palestinian state. But he presented this in a more flexible manner. Since the road map calls for a Palestinian state with provisional borders in the second stage of the process, the right of return could be conceded at that stage, during the negotiations over the establishment of the state.
The Americans did provide a formal response to the Israeli proposal, but some American officials indicated they regarded it as a logical demand. However, the administration does not intend to open the road map for reformulation. If the plan is implemented, and moves successfully past the first stage - a ceasefire, Palestinian governmental reforms, and a settlement freeze - the right of return issue could come up at the same time as the negotiations for the Palestinian state.
There is administration acceptance of the Israeli approach, which says the progress along the road map should be measured by the sides' implementations and not by a timetable. Washington has yet to appoint the team to supervise the implementation, which the Americans are expected to lead. The lead candidate to head the supervisory team is State Department official Richard Erdman, who has served as a political counselor in the Tel Aviv embassy and heads the American steering committee for the Grapes of Wrath understandings between Israel and the Hezbollah for south Lebanon. A CIA team will monitor security implementations.
The Americans are expecting Palestinian security official Mohammed Dahlan to focus on dismantling the Hamas and Islamic Jihad's military infrastructure in Gaza. They assume he will start by trying to persuade the two organizations to disarm, but don't have high hopes that he will succeed. Therefore, they will demand he and Abu Mazen take practical steps to disarm the Islamic groups there.
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