The road to reconciliation?

A tough-talking US plans to unveil an Israeli-Palestinian 'road map' this month.

After only 21 days of war in Iraq, there are signs that the US is already turning its attention to another regional battle: the ongoing conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.

In recent days, administration officials have made clear that the US-backed "road map" peace plan will be unveiled this month and that its contents are nonnegotiable.

While the new push for peace is closely linked to the US efforts in Iraq as well as British and European political concerns, its greatest effect may be on Israeli domestic politics.

In the meantime, the parties involved differ on its impact on the region.

Palestinians, who feared what might happen during the war in Iraq, now look to benefit and say they are taking a wait-and-see attitude. Israel opposes the plan as it stands, arguing that the road map's renewed momentum is driven more by a US need to reward and placate others than any desire to foster peace.

"They're suspicious that the US and the European Union are trying to buy goodwill at Israel's expense," says Mark Heller, a senior research analyst at the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies.

Many Israelis also believe that the US is acting out of a desire to reward.

"It's understood that [the road map] is part of a payment to the British in exchange for their support in Iraq," says Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University outside Tel Aviv.

The road map came into being after a June 2002 speech by President George Bush, in which he outlined a series of measures meant to end violence here and lead to the creation of a Palestinian state by 2005.

The actual work of making this happen fell to the Quartet - the US, the 15-member European Union, Russia and the United Nations - who banded together in the fall of 2001 to coordinate efforts to cultivate peace here.

Problems cropped up as soon as the teams sat down to translate Mr. Bush's idea into a workable written plan. Though the road map still has not been published - it is expected sometime this month, after the new Palestinian prime minister takes office - bits and pieces of its drafts were leaked to the media.

Israel objected to what it was hearing. In the first of three phases, the plan reportedly requires both sides to publicly commit to a two-state solution. Palestinians are required to end violence and incitement against Israel, crack down on terrorist groups, and undertake political reform, among other steps.

Israel is to stop confiscating and destroying Palestinian civilian property, allow Palestinian officials to travel for their reform efforts, improve the Palestinian humanitarian situation, dismantle illegal settlement outposts, and freeze all settlement activity.

The core problem with this plan, say Israelis, is that it asks both sides to take these steps together.

They say that Bush's June 2002 speech required Palestinians to take steps before any Israeli action would be required and insist that the road map follow that performance-based template rather than a timetable.

"What Bush outlined last year was essentially sequential and therefore conditional in the sense that there were certain obligations that the Palestinians had to meet first before demands would be made of Israel," says

Mr. Heller of the Jaffee Center. "Now there are concerns that [Israel has] obligations regardless of what the Palestinians do."

Foreign diplomats observing the process say that parallel requirements are a core part of the road map, but that this doesn't encompass all elements.

"Some aspects have to move a little more quickly than others," says one diplomat, referring to Palestinian violence.

Ghassan Khatib, a Palestinian legislator, says the two sides have little choice. "The road map is the only game in town," he says. "The renewal of the peace effort is connected to it, so we see good things in it, it's about ending the occupation and providing peace and security for all parties."

Mr. Khatib complains that Palestinians have already proceeded with reforms and appointed a prime minister, but that Israel is dragging its heels. The plan itself is satisfactory, he says. "We have problems with some details but this is not fundamental," says Khatib.

But Israeli critics say that as it stands, the road map rewards the Palestinians. "It will harm Israel's achievements until now by rewarding Palestinians for stopping terror," says Maj. Gen. Yaakov Amidror, former head of the Israeli army's National Defense College. "It would make Arafat one of the war's big victors and would be a historically big mistake."

One foreign diplomat dismisses this as overheated rhetoric. "Israel says they're going to pay for American troubles with the Arabs, this is an interesting way to pay: To have a peace process," the diplomat says.

The US granted two Israeli requests to delay the road map's publication, during which time a team appointed by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon compiled more than 100 "corrections" to the peace plan.

But the sense that the US was willing to accommodate Israel evaporated in the past few weeks. In late March, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice made a speech in which she said settlement activity would have to stop and that the road map was "non-negotiable."

Israeli commentators responded by assailing the government for being "asleep at the switch" and the US and UK for making Israel "the sacrificial lamb that will expiate the horrors of the war being carried out by the allies."

Underlying the rhetoric is a sense that Israel is battling Europe for America's ear. Israel considers Europe to be pro-Palestinian and says it will insist that the US lead the road map process.

But Europe is likely to push for a greater role in the road map. Analysts say that Germany in particular is worried that their opposition to the war in Iraq will leave them without influence once the war is over and the US starts creating a new Middle East.

And Bush, who prizes loyalty in his colleagues, owes his steadfast war ally British Prime Minister Tony Blair some help.

While support for the war has risen in the UK, Mr. Blair has staked his political future on the war and needs to be able to show something for it. A solid achievement in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process would fit the bill.

While the road map might help Blair, it presents a real challenge to Mr. Sharon. A long-standing supporter of settlements, he sits at the head of a right-wing coalition, many of whose members oppose any form of Palestinian statehood.

Publication of the road map without Israel's suggested revisions would be a "massive defeat for Sharon," says the foreign diplomat. It may also trigger the departure of some parties in protest, potentially leading to elections or opening the way for the centrist Labor to join Sharon in government.

Professor Steinberg, of Bar-Ilan University, says Israelis have valued Sharon's excellent relations with the US. "He'd have much greater trouble if there's a publicly visible conflict with the US over the road map," says Steinberg.

EU pushes hard for peace plan

JERUSALEM - Germany's long-standing recognition of a historic debt to Israel is now being coupled with some friendly advice: get on board for peace moves after the war in Iraq.

This comes amid growing Israeli concerns that European leaders are lobbying the US to impose the road map on Israel to improve their standing in the Arab world.

The EU, Israel's largest trading partner, has been more sympathetic to Palestinian positions and more critical of Israeli policies in the occupied territories than the United States.

German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, visiting the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum yesterday, laid a wreath over stones that cover ashes of Jews who perished in six extermination camps.

Removing a black yarmulka from his head, he then resumed an effort to sway Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom toward the peace plan. "Israel is completely changed from when I used to visit during the peace process," he told Mr. Shalom. "The hotels are empty. And the economic crisis has placed a terrible burden on the middle class."

Mr. Fischer was planning to meet with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat on Wednesday despite Israel's insistence that Mr. Arafat be removed from any influence because of alleged involvement in terrorism.

- Ben Lynfield

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