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Bush Eases Pressure on Both Sides Over Peace Plan

WASHINGTON — Seeking to prevent the unraveling of its so-called “road map” to Israeli-Palestinian peace, the Bush administration is scaling back its demands on each side in hopes of making it easier for each of them to comply. The apparent aim is to ease domestic political pressures on the leaders, as well as to defuse charges from each side that the other side is failing to comply.

To ease pressure, the administration agreed last week to work with Israel on devising a working definition of “settlement freeze,” something that Palestinians say is already spelled out clearly in the road map. At the same time, the administration has tacitly accepted the Palestinian plan to achieve a disarming of Islamic terrorist groups through a gradual process, rather than immediately by confronting and “dismantling” the groups as called for in the road map.

The latest moves would have the effect of easing the political dilemmas of the two leaders, Ariel Sharon and Mahmoud Abbas, by legitimizing positions on each side that the other side views as undermining the continuation of the cease-fire.

Israeli security officials have complained with growing intensity in the past week over Palestinian failure to dismantle Islamic terrorist groups, which they say are training, rearming and testing and manufacturing new rockets capable of reaching major Israeli cities.

Palestinians, meanwhile, have complained bitterly about continued Israeli construction in the territories. Islamic militants reportedly have signaled Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, in recent days that they will not renew the three-month cease-fire when it runs out because of Israel’s failure to comply.

In conversations with foreign diplomats in recent days, administration officials have acknowledged that they are seeking to make the parties’ compliance easier. The strategy emerges from the American officials’ frustration that the parties appear to be “talking past each other” following last month’s Washington visits by Sharon and Abu Mazen.

The moves come amid a public spat over reports that the administration is planning to ramp up pressure on Israel to reroute or halt construction on its so-called West Bank separation fence. Administration officials said they were considering a plan to deduct the amount Israel spends on the fence from the $9 billion in loan guarantees that Washington granted Israel earlier this year. The reports prompted angry protests from supporters of Israel, including several congressional Democrats.

By pressuring Israel on the fence, sources here said, Washington hoped to correct the impression created during Sharon’s visit that the administration is acquiescing in the construction of the fence, most of which is being built on land expropriated from Palestinians inside the West Bank.

According to official Israeli data, 85% of the land on which the barrier has risen so far was expropriated from Palestinians and just 15% was expropriated from Israelis.

According to the loan-guarantee agreement between Jerusalem and Washington, any funds Israel disburses for construction in the West Bank are deducted from the loans the U.S. government guarantees. The administration has not yet informed Israel officially of its apparent intention to treat the construction of the fence similarly to the construction of settlements.

The administration plan prompted sharp protests from congressional Democrats, including two senators, Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut and Charles Schumer of New York. Schumer said if Bush “flouts the will of Congress and tries to penalize Israel for defending itself, Congress will do everything in its power to ensure that these loan guarantees are not held up.”

Rep. Nita Lowey, a New York Democrat, was gathering House signatures on a letter to Bush urging him “not to use U.S. assistance to dictate how the State of Israel addresses its security needs.”

While projecting a tough position on the fence, the administration is trying to find a formula that would make it politically palatable for Sharon’s government to fulfill the road map’s settlement-freeze clause. The plan requires an immediate freeze of “all settlement activity, including natural growth of settlements.” But the formula that Washington is discussing with the government of Israel allows for some continued construction in West Bank and Gaza settlements.

The administration views the settlement freeze as less critical at this point than changing the course of the fence, State Department officials told Arab diplomats here last week. The fence is visible, and changes to it are tangible — and hence more likely to strengthen Abu Mazen — while a freeze on settlement activity is “unenforceable and unmonitorable,” officials reportedly told the diplomats.

The administration agreed last week to form a committee with Israel to discuss the definition of a “freeze” on settlement activity in the West Bank and Gaza, Israeli and American sources said. The committee, headed by senior staffers at the National Security Council and at Sharon’s office, would negotiate on the basis of a formula that was first devised in 2001 in talks between Secretary of State Colin Powell and then-Israeli foreign minister Shimon Peres.

The so-called “Powell-Peres formula,” which the United States denies it has ever officially accepted, was intended to flesh out the settlement-freeze requirement in the Mitchell Committee report of May 2001. The formula includes a ban on creating new settlements, a halt to expropriation of Palestinian land for settlements and a ban on expanding existing settlements beyond their currently zoned borders. It makes the freeze contingent on Palestinian compliance with the Mitchell report, and specifies that the parties will discuss the future of the settlements in the context of final-status negotiations.

Israel is now suggesting a new commitment: not to funnel any “special funding” for settlement activity, according to a senior Israeli official. The meaning of “special funds,” another Israeli official said, is government subsidies. In addition, Israel has dropped its demand that the settlement freeze be contingent on Palestinian compliance.

Israeli and American sources said there is no agreement yet on this draft formula. Washington apparently is seeking a stricter formulation. The Palestinian Authority is demanding an absolute freeze, including a halt to private construction and a ban on additional Jews moving into the West Bank and Gaza.

The administration, while rejecting Palestinian demands on settlements, appears to reject Israel’s demand that the P.A. immediately and forcefully act to dismantle terrorist organizations.

In June, during a joint press conference with Abu Mazen in Jericho, Secretary of State Colin Powell said: “Right now, Hamas is committed to terror and celebrates the terrorist attacks we are seeing. And it is no longer possible to separate one part of Hamas out from another part of Hamas.” Now, a month later, Powell talks about having “to convert this kind of organization into organizations that are no longer interested in using terror as a political weapon.” Powell also said last week regarding Hamas: “If an organization that has a terrorist component to it, a terrorist wing to it, totally abandons that, gives it up, and there’s no question in anyone’s mind that that is part of its past, then that is a different organization.”

Pro-Israel lobbyists said they were “concerned” about the apparent erosion in the administration’s position and would raise the issue in upcoming meetings at the White House and State Department.

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