Monday, August 13, 2007

U.S. push for Israeli-Palestinian peace dismissed

Sun Aug 12, 2007 4:20PM BST
By Adam Entous

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - A U.S. congressional leader said on Sunday he saw little chance of a real breakthrough on a Palestinian state, either at a U.S.-sponsored conference this year or before the end of President George W. Bush's term.

With a year-and-a-half left in office, Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice have been trying to jumpstart the long-stalled peace process between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Officials said the goal was for the leaders to reach agreement on statehood principles in time for the U.S.-led conference, expected to take place in November.

"While I understand that some people in the (U.S.) administration would like to see great achievements in the next few months, great achievements will not be forthcoming," said Tom Lantos, a Democrat and chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives.

"This is not a task that a capable and committed secretary of state can achieve in the time that is left for this administration," Lantos said after talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders in Jerusalem and the West Bank.

Far from ushering in an end to the conflict, Lantos said the conference would be "one of many, many conferences that will be held over many years to come to move this process forward".

Bush's Republican Party lost control of the House to the Democrats last year. But Bush's efforts to bolster Abbas have received bipartisan support since Hamas seized control of the Gaza Strip in June.

The European Union wants the upcoming conference to lead to negotiations on a final agreement, a top EU diplomat said.

As a possible confidence-building step, Olmert's office said on Sunday that a decision would be made shortly on removing some of the hundreds of roadblocks that impede Palestinian travel in the occupied West Bank.

The foreign ministers of Israel, Jordan and Japan will meet in the West Bank city of Jericho on Wednesday to discuss economic development in a sign of stepped-up diplomacy.


Western officials said Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak had expressed similar scepticism to Lantos during private meetings with visiting diplomats, including Rice.

Barak, who as prime minister spearheaded talks with the Palestinians that ended in failure in 2001, was quoted by an Israeli newspaper on Friday as dismissing "fantasies" about reaching a peace deal.

It is unclear how Olmert, whose popularity plummeted after last year's inconclusive war in Lebanon, can make major concessions, particularly on removing Jewish settlements.

It is also uncertain how Abbas can deliver on any deal with Hamas Islamists in control of the Gaza Strip.

Western diplomats said Olmert intended to ease travel restrictions in the West Bank in phases, starting with a small number of roadblocks in less sensitive areas. Israel says the checkpoints help stop militant attacks. Palestinians call them collective punishment.

Israel has sometimes failed to meet promises to remove roadblocks in the past or quickly reversed changes.

Israeli cabinet minister Meir Sheetrit said the decision to remove roadblocks still hinged on whether Abbas improved security in the West Bank.

Lantos told reporters in Jerusalem: "Premature removal of these checkpoints is a guarantee of violence and terrorism erupting."

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