Israeli officials are worried about a set of so-called “benchmarks” presented last week by U.S. diplomats that would be used as steps toward final status negotiations with the Palestinian Authority.
As before, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will fly to the region, this time on May 15th to drag the powerless PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas and unpopular Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert back to the bargaining table to enforce the implementation of those benchmarks.
The eight-month timeline calls for a series of steps that resemble the “confidence-building measures” laid out in the tattered Road Map plan, another U.S. initiative which Israel began to carry out and the PA basically ignored.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert already tentatively agreed last week to comply with America’s latest laundry list, according to the Reuters news agency. U.S. officials said the PA had also agreed to carry out the plan, which is set to begin this month and carry on through December.
Neither Israel nor the PA, however, has officially responded to the document, which becomes a binding contract if both sides formally accept it.
Israeli officials are deeply concerned about the viability of the plan, authored by U.S. Security Coordinator Keith Dayton, U.S. Ambassador to Israel Richard Jones and U.S. Consul-General in Jerusalem, Jacob Walles.
The benchmarks include a deadline by which Israel will allow PA bus and truck convoys to shuttle between Gaza and PA-controlled areas of Judea and Samaria.
Israel is also expected to remove the security roadblocks in Judea and Samaria and extend operating hours at the major border crossings with Gaza.
More ominous, Israel will be forced to provide arms, ammunition and equipment to PA security forces in an “immediate and ongoing” manner, whenever U.S. Maj.-Gen. Dayton “requests” it.
Israel’s security establishment emphasizes that these moves would dramatically endanger an already vulnerable Israeli civilian population constantly facing missile launchings from Gaza, suicide bombings, and other terrorist attacks.
On the PA side of the deal, a deadline is set for Chairman Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) to increase deployment of security forces and “begin curbing rocket fire by militants,” according to media reports.
The PA corridor demand is not new. Convoys between the PA territories and Gaza were approved in a deal brokered by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in November 2005, before the Hamas terrorist organization became the ruling faction of the PA government.
Although Israel faced numerous attacks prior to the elections, the number skyrocketed after Hamas took control of the PA, adding kidnappings of an IDF soldier, foreign nationals and terrorists from both factions. IDF Corporal Gilad Shalit has yet to be returned by the Hamas-allied terrorists who kidnapped him, killed two soldiers and critically wounded another in a cross-border raid in June 2006.
Hamas, Fatah Cannot Ensure Safety in PA-Controlled Areas, Even for PA Residents
Thousands of PA residents are desperate to escape the nightmare of life under the PA government, lining up to apply for visas that will enable them to live in other countries.
Hundreds of other PA Arabs have been killed or wounded due to the internecine fighting between Fatah and Hamas terrorists as they battle for control of the government – this, despite the so-called “unity” coalition that was to have ended the bloodbath several months ago.
Foreign journalists no longer maintain permanent bureaus in Gaza – it is simply not safe to do so. Furthermore, the Foreign Press Association recently warned its members to avoid on-site coverage in Gaza if at all possible due to the chaotic conditions and lack of security in the area.
A number of reporters have been kidnapped in the past 12 months, including journalists from Associated Press, the French AFP news agency and others. Some were held for an hour or two, others were held longer. A Fox news team was kept incommunicado in the latter half of 2006 for two weeks. Most recently, a Scottish national named Alan Johnston, a reporter for the British Broadcasting Corporation, was snatched in March and has not been heard from since.
U.S. Ignoring the Dangerous 'Facts on the Ground'
The Bush administration nonetheless insists that the eight-month plan will bring a win-win situation for all parties.
Secretary Rice expresses confidence that the specific deadlines will create a firm structure in a process that has not moved forward despite years of efforts by various U.S. governments.
A senior U.S. official commented the plan provides incentives on both sides – “One side gets security. The other side gets greater [freedom] of movement.”
Israeli officials aren’t so sure; Jerusalem noted that Israel is being told to erase security measures without first making sure that Abbas can keep his promises to ensure security for Israelis at the same time.
As an unnamed Israeli official pointed out, “There is not (sic) conditionality. Even if they don’t complete their obligations, we’ll have to complete ours.”