Emerging Monday from the highest-level meeting yet between the United States and the new Palestinian leadership, Assistant Secretary of State William Burns pledged an aggressive push for peace to end 31 months of bloodshed and bitterness in the Middle East.
Burns met with new Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank city of Ramallah on a visit aimed at bolstering support for a newly released peace initiative, or “road map,” to establish a Palestinian state by 2005. The U.S. envoy’s trip is also meant to smooth the way for a visit by Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, who is scheduled to arrive in the region this weekend to kick off a full-scale diplomatic peace drive.
“I was able to convey the very strong commitment of President Bush to seize the moment of opportunity before us, to move aggressively and energetically toward the two-state vision which he has outlined using the road map as a starting point and a framework,” Burns told reporters Monday, echoing remarks from meetings he had with Israeli officials the previous day.
Unveiled last Wednesday, the road map is designed to ease tensions by implementing an Israeli military withdrawal from forward positions inside Palestinian territories in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and by dismantling Palestinian terrorist groups responsible for continued suicide bombings in Israeli malls, buses and bars. Hundreds of Israelis have died in such attacks since the current Palestinian uprising began in September 2000.
Critics charge that Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, a father figure in his people’s quest for statehood, has endorsed attacks on Israeli civilians -- a claim he denies. The United States has joined Israel in sidestepping the aging leader in what is envisioned at the run-up to new talks, and Burns did not meet with Arafat on Monday. The road map will be mediated by the United States, the United Nations, Russia and the European Union.
“On the Palestinian side, there will be absolutely no substitute
On the Israeli side, he called for security forces to take steps toward “easing the suffering of Palestinians living under occupation.” Measures imposed by Israel in the occupied territories include round-the-clock curfews, which keep families cooped up in their homes for days, and travel restrictions that prevent many people from getting to their jobs. More than 2,000 Palestinians have died in Israeli military incursions in the West Bank and Gaza in the last 2 1/2 years.
As the U.S.-led diplomatic offensive gathers speed, however, serious disagreements have emerged about the road map’s implementation. Israel has proposed more than a dozen alterations to the three-phase plan. Palestinian officials say the Israelis are stalling.
“Palestinians are already well on our way to implementing the road map, while Israel has yet to even accept the road map,” Abbas said in a statement that highlighted Palestinian concessions to date, including the formation of a new Cabinet and the separation of powers between the judicial, legislative and executive branches of the Palestinian Authority.
Israeli officials insist that the success of talks will hinge on Abbas’ success in reining in militants. Just last week, a suicide bomber blew himself up at a seaside jazz club in Tel Aviv, killing three other people. The attack not only served as a reminder of the uncompromising stance of many Palestinian militants but raised questions about the reach of Abbas’ influence over extremist groups. The suicide bomber and an accomplice who escaped had traveled to Israel on British passports.
Since the road map’s formal presentation last week, 20 Palestinians and a British journalist have also died in the ongoing violence.
“You always have a lunatic who will continue, from time to time at least, to commit terror attacks,” said Abraham Diskin of Jerusalem’s Hebrew University’s political science department. “I think the best we can hope for is a cold coexistence. I don’t think we’ll reach peace in our time.”
In a further example of the discord between the two sides, Israeli officials have insisted that the Palestinians drop a key demand that refugees be allowed to return to land inside Israel that they fled or have been forced to leave. The road map leaves the right to return, along with other thorny issues, to the third and final phase of negotiations.
Also Monday, Israel’s dovish Labor Party struggled to decide on a new leader after former Gen. Amram Mitzna’s announcement Sunday that he was stepping down as the country’s opposition leader because of political infighting.
The surprise announcement left the party in turmoil and sparked speculation that Labor representatives might be more likely now to join a coalition with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s Likud Party if peace talks get off the ground. Mitzna originally opposed such an alliance, although his stance had softened recently.
Local media reports said that party officials were considering the possibility of nominating former Prime Minister Shimon Peres as a temporary chairman until 2004 elections.
Burns’ visit also coincided with the news that during the run-up to the war in Iraq, Israeli and Syrian representatives held secret but unsuccessful talks aimed at resuming peace negotiations. Previous efforts to hammer out an accord between the two countries became bogged down over the issue of a withdrawal by Israel from the Golan Heights -- which it captured from Syria in the 1967 Middle East War -- and ended in January 2000.
The recent talks were held between a former Israeli Foreign Ministry official and the brother of Syrian President Bashar Assad, Israel’s Maariv newspaper reported, describing them as “serious and in-depth.” Sharon eventually rejected the peace overture, Maariv said, because of suspicions that Assad was acting to placate the United States.