U.S. Sets Deadlines For Israelis, Palestinians On Removing Roadblocks
Friday, May 4th 2007, 6:57 am
News On 6
JERICHO, West Bank (AP) _ The U.S. has submitted a document with deadlines for easing Palestinian movement and improving Israeli security, including removing Israeli roadblocks in the West Bank and halting Palestinian rocket fire, the chief Palestinian negotiator said Friday.
The document, published Friday in the Haaretz newspaper, is in line with a more hands-on approach to peacemaking by the U.S. in recent weeks. The deadlines are not binding.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was expected to return to the region to discuss the deadlines with both sides, but the Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat, said no date has been set.
Erekat said the Palestinians welcome the document and would study it carefully. ``I believe that this is the right approach,'' Erekat said. ``This is transferring words to deeds.''
An official in the office of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said some of the ideas contained in the document were already at various stages of implementation, citing relaxed restrictions at the Karni cargo crossing between Israel and the Gaza Strip. ``There are a few Israel will not be able to address at present because of security concerns,'' the official added, without elaborating.
The official spoke on condition of anonymity because discussions of the document have been confidential.
A U.S. spokesman in Tel Aviv, Geoff Anisman, said, ``These are private diplomatic discussions between the parties, and we're not giving any details.''
The deadlines _ which range from May 1 to August 1 _ were handed to the two sides at a time of growing political turmoil in Israel, with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert under intense public pressure to resign over his handling of last summer's Lebanon war. Haaretz said high-level talks on the document were put off over the political crisis.
Anisman would not address the timing of the document's submission.
The Israeli official said, ``The world did not come to a stop this week. Neither did the prime minister's office or governing.''
The document is a follow-up to Rice's visit to the region in March. At the time, she extracted a promise from Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to meet every two weeks. In those meetings, the two leaders were to discuss the broad outlines of a final peace deal, but also progress on implementing a troubled November 2005 agreement on improving movement and access for the Palestinians.
Many of the deadlines in the document deal with that agreement.
For example, it calls on Israel to remove many of Israel's roadblocks in the West Bank and setting up a convoy system that would allow Palestinians to travel between the West Bank and Gaza, territories separated by Israel.
It asks Israel to ensure that the Rafah passenger terminal between Gaza and Egypt will be open at least five days a week. Israel had permitted only sporadic operations after Hamas-allied militants captured an Israeli soldier in June.
The document also calls for expanded operations of the Karni cargo crossing, Gaza's lifeline. Karni, attacked by militants in the past, is a bottleneck because of stringent Israeli security checks.
Chuck Freilich, a former deputy Israeli national security adviser, predicted Israeli resistance to the benchmarks.
``Even now the American benchmarks are extremely difficult decisions for Israel to make and I think that there will be a lot of pressure against it in the (military) and the security establishment as a whole,'' Freilich said, without elaborating.
Ghassan Khatib, a former Palestinian Cabinet minister who helped to negotiate the November 2005 agreement, said it would be difficult for the Palestinians to carry out their obligation under the agreement to stop the rocket fire.
``It is possible, but it is difficult,'' Khatib said. Other obligations, like putting all Palestinian security forces under a single authority, he said, would be more doable.
The document asks the Palestinians to deploy more security forces to prevent weapons smuggling into Gaza and to halt rocket fire into Israel. It calls on Israel to allow the transfer of weapons and equipment to security forces loyal to Abbas.
A spokesman for Abbas' presidential guard, Wael Dahab, said 500 guardsmen are being trained by a U.N. team for deployment by mid-May to improve security at Karni and Rafah.