The United States is sending two senior envoys to the Middle East for talks aimed at keeping Palestinian elections and last November's Israeli-Palestinian crossing-point agreement on track. The State Department says it sees no reason why Palestinian voting should not proceed as planned later this month.
The Bush administration is sending White House Middle East policy chief Elliott Abrams and Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Welch to the region in a move reflecting U.S. concern about slippage in Palestinian election plans and a U.S.-brokered agreement opening Gaza crossing points.
The two officials are expected to begin talks with Israeli and Palestinian officials Thursday amid a flurry of press reports the Palestinian legislative elections set for January 25 might be postponed.
Palestinian efforts to organize the elections have been marred by violence, and Palestinian Authority chief Mahmoud Abbas reiterated a warning Monday that he might call for a postponement if Israel barred voting in East Jerusalem.
The Abrams-Welch mission was announced by State Department Sean McCormack, who said they would discuss both the election issue and the Gaza checkpoints agreement which was brokered by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice November 15, but has fallen behind schedule.
Mr. McCormack said while the timing of elections is a decision for the Palestinians to make, arrangements for voting in East Jerusalem have been agreed upon by the parties in the past, and there is no reason why an agreement cannot be reached this time as well.
"We believe that these elections should reflect the will of the Palestinian people, and that in the past that has included voting by the people who are from or live in East Jerusalem," he said. "And the Israelis and Palestinians have been able to reach accommodation on that issue. We think they should be able to again."
Israeli officials have threatened to bar voting in East Jerusalem, because of electioneering there by the Palestinian Islamic movement Hamas, which does not accept Israel's right to exist and has carried out numerous terrorist attacks against Israelis.
Last week, the United States and its partners in the international Middle East "Quartet" - Russia, the European Union and the United Nations - urged all participants in the election process to renounce violence, recognize Israel's right to exist, and disarm.
The Quartet also said the parties should come up with a mechanism to allow East Jerusalem Palestinians to exercise "their legitimate democratic rights," consistent with existing precedent.
Under the Gaza crossings agreement, the key Rafah checkpoint between the Gaza strip and Egypt opened on time November 25.
But the timetable for implementation has slipped since then, with the two sides missing a December 15 target for opening bus traffic for Palestinians between Gaza and the West Bank.
A senior official who spoke to reporters said U.S. officials believe a way can be found to provide freedom of movement for Palestinians, while taking into account legitimate security concerns of the Israelis.
He urged the sides to focus on making the next deadline, setting up a mechanism for Gaza-West Bank truck convoys by January 15, and finding a way to allow the promised bus traffic.
The official said the United States' new security envoy for Gaza, Army Major-General Keith Dayton, will also be returning to the region later this week to address the crossings issue.
General Dayton was appointed in November to replace Army Lieutenant-General William Ward in the Gaza troubleshooting post.
The official said General Dayton, who has already made one trip to the area, met President Bush at the White House Tuesday and had a meeting at the State Department later with Secretary Rice.