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US Intensifies Diplomatic Efforts to Solve Middle East Conflict - 2002-12-25

Amid a year of serious Israeli-Palestinian violence, the Bush administration committed itself to working for a final settlement of the Middle East conflict, including Palestinian statehood by 2005. The United States' peace efforts were increasingly coordinated with those of the other members of the so-called "Quartet" on the Middle East - Russia, the European Union and the United Nations.

The year saw some of the most extreme violence in the history of the conflict, including Palestinian suicide attacks on Israelis and retaliatory raids by Israeli forces and the military re-occupation of major cities and towns in the West Bank.

But it was also a year of intensive U.S.-led diplomatic activity, highlighted by a June 24 policy address by President George W. Bush in which, for the first time, he committed the United States to the creation of a Palestinian state living side-by-side with Israel.

In a statement in the White House Rose Garden, Mr. Bush proposed a three-year timetable for a final settlement including Palestinian statehood. But he said the clock should not begin ticking until the Palestinians elect new leaders and build new political, economic and security institutions - an implicit rejection of Yasser Arafat and his Palestinian Authority considered by U.S. officials to have been supportive of, if not directly involved in, terrorism.

"Peace requires a new and different Palestinian leadership, so that a Palestinian state can be born," said Mr. Bush. "I call on the Palestinian people to elect new leaders, leaders not compromised by terror. I call upon them to build a practicing democracy based on tolerance and liberty. If the Palestinian people actively pursue these goals, America and the world will actively support their efforts."

In the message, Mr. Bush made no effort to discourage Israel from what U.S. spokesmen had described as legitimate self-defense in the wake of on-going suicide attacks. But he said while it is untenable for Israelis to live in terror, it is also untenable for Palestinians to live in squalor and occupation, and he made clear that peace will require Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian areas.

"Permanent occupation threatens Israel's identity and democracy. A stable, peaceful Palestinian state is necessary to achieve the security that Israel longs for. So I challenge Israel to take concrete steps to support the emergence of a viable credible Palestinian state," said Mr. Bush. "As we make progress towards security, Israeli forces need to withdraw fully to positions they held prior to September 28, 2000. And consistent with the recommendations of the Mitchell Committee, Israeli settlement activity in the occupied territories must stop."

Another key administration overture came in December with the launch by Secretary of State Colin Powell of the U.S.-Middle East Partnership Initiative.

Aimed in part at defusing criticism that U.S. interest in democratization in the area was selectively limited to Iraq and the Palestinians, Mr. Powell said the United States would fund programs to promote economic and political reforms, including women's rights, throughout the Middle East.

"A shortage of economic opportunities is a ticket to despair," said Mr. Powell. "Combined with rigid political systems, it is a dangerous brew indeed. So along with freer economies, many of the peoples of the Middle East need a stronger political voice. We reject the condescending notion that freedom will not grow in the Middle East or that there is any region of the world that cannot support democracy."

Little more than a week later, Mr. Powell convened for the fourth time in 2002 a ministerial meeting of the Middle East "quartet," an informal grouping of the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations, which has taken on an increasingly important role in regional diplomacy.

The December 20 meeting aimed at further refining a so-called "roadmap" for an Israeli-Palestinian peace based on the Bush plan from June and other initiatives including that of Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Abdullah, endorsed by the Arab League Summit in late March.

While the European Union had hoped the "roadmap" could be completed in Washington, the Bush administration prevailed upon the "quartet," which operates by consensus, to put back release of the plan until after Israel's elections at the end of January. Secretary Powell told reporters the delay, which had been sought by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, would not be significant.

"Because of the Israeli election, to be frank, and because of the number of issue that are before the Israeli public right now, we think it would be wiser in this instance for us to continue work on a roadmap, and wait until after the Israeli election is over," said Mr. Powell. "It's just a matter of weeks until that is resolved, and then we will engage with all the parties in the region with respect to a roadmap, if we have complete agreement on the elements of the roadmap at least within the quartet at that time."

Danish Foreign Minister Per Stig Moeller, whose country holds the EU presidency, openly disagreed with Mr. Powell, saying Israel voters should be privy to the content of the plan. But he noted that leaked drafts had appeared on the internet and the roadmap's main principles were already well known:

"It is very important that Israel knows that it must end with two states. And it is very important that the Palestinians know that they will never get to two states if terrorism continues, because there will never be the climate in which you can negotiate the final settlements between the two states," explained Mr. Moeller. "There must be built some trust in the middle of all this distrust which is in the region. And that is what the roadmap tries: gradually to build up trust so that you can finally make the final settlements between those."

The roadmap provides for step-by-step confidence-building measures by the two sides, and a Palestinian state with provisional boundaries could be set up by end of 2003.

The "quartet" principals said they would convene again early in the new year, and in the meantime called for an immediate comprehensive cease-fire including an end to all Palestinian acts of terror against Israelis, in any location.

Part of VOA's yearend series