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US Offers Confidence-Building 'Benchmarks' For Israelis, Palestinians

The United States has asked Israel and the Palestinian Authority to take a series of confidence-building steps in the coming months to improve the climate for peace efforts by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Israel is already signaling resistance to some of what the State Department calls "informal benchmarks." VOA's David Gollust reports from the State Department.

Officials here say the two Middle East parties have been given a U.S. document asking them to take specific actions over the next few months, in order to build mutual confidence and boost American efforts to restart the regional peace process.

The State Department confirmed the existence of the U.S. plan after news reports of the initiative surfaced this week in Israel, where the government of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was reported resisting some of what were termed U.S. "demands" because of security concerns.

The Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz and the Reuters news agency Friday both carried reports quoting what they said were the contents of the U.S. plan, which they said contained deadlines for specific actions by the two sides.

Among other things, Israel is reportedly being asked to ease travel restrictions in the West Bank and at Gaza crossing points in stages over the next several weeks.

The Palestinian Authority, meanwhile, is to take specific steps against arms smuggling into Gaza, and to develop a plan by June to stop missile firings into Israel by militants in Gaza, and to deploy forces there to implement it.

At a news briefing, State Department Deputy Spokesman Thomas Casey declined to discuss the specific contents of the U.S. initiative. He characterized it as a set of informal benchmarks - rather than deadlines - that would allow the parties to track progress on security and freedom-of-movement issues:

"While certainly this is something that we would like to see done in a timely manner, contrary to some of the press reports that are out there, these benchmarks don't constitute a plan with fixed deadlines. They're a flexible set of targets, and they're intended to help facilitate discussion, rather than be a specific plan of action for the parties."

The Ha'aretz newspaper said while the Israeli government is prepared to lift roadblocks and Gaza crossing restrictions as called for in the U.S. plan, it has serious security concerns about other aspects, including allowing Palestinian bus convoys to travel between Gaza and the West Bank by July first.

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said the Palestinian Authority welcomed the document and would study it carefully.

The American proposals are a follow-up to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's visit to the region in March.

At the time, she gained a commitment from Israeli Prime Minister Olmert and Palestinian Authority chief Mahmoud Abbas to meet every two weeks to discuss the broad outlines of an eventual peace accord, and the implementation of a stalled Gaza crossings agreement mediated by Rice in 2005.

A senior diplomat here says Rice still expects to visit the region again in the middle of this month to meet with both leaders, despite the political problems of Mr. Olmert.

The Israeli Prime Minister is under broad pressure to resign after an official inquiry this week harshly criticized his handling of Israel's conflict last year with Lebanese Hezbollah fighters.