The United States will conduct confidential assessments of whether Israel and the Palestinians are meeting their peacemaking commitments and share the results privately with the parties, U.S. and Western officials said.
Israel has sought to keep the U.S. process of judging compliance with the long-stalled “road map” peace plan largely secret. Palestinians say they favour disclosure of judgments on whether Israel is halting all settlement activity and whether the Palestinians are curbing militants as the plan demands.
Though the Bush administration has decided to keep the assessment process confidential, it reserves the right to go public with its views if necessary, the officials said.
U.S. judgments will be crucial because Israel has said it will not implement any peace deal until the Palestinians meet their commitments to combat militants in both the West Bank and the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, where militants continue to fire rockets across the border into Israel.
The monitoring process may be a test of Washington’s readiness to hold a key ally to its commitments. Despite U.S. and Palestinian pressure on Israel to freeze settlements, the Housing Ministry said on Sunday 740 new homes would be built in East Jerusalem next year.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas agreed at U.S.-sponsored conference in Annapolis, Maryland last month to relaunch final-status peace talks with the goal of reaching a statehood agreement by the end of 2008.
They also agreed Washington – rather than the broader Quartet of Middle East mediators – would “monitor and judge” Israeli and Palestinian compliance with the 2003 road map.
Though Israel supports U.S. oversight, it has sent mixed messages about whether it would treat the findings as binding.
“We will conduct this process in confidence,” a senior U.S. official said
of the judging program, adding that “our purpose will be to encourage progress, not to chastise” the parties.
The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Washington will share the assessment results “with the parties, probably bilaterally, but perhaps in other formats as well”.
“We reserve the option to be public if need arises,” the official added.
Officials said the newly appointed U.S. envoy for Middle East security, James Jones, will not serve as the direct “judge” of whether the parties are complying with their commitments.
Rather than publicly name a judge, American diplomats in the region working with the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv and Consulate in Jerusalem will send confidential assessments and recommendations to the State Department in Washington.
Decisions on whether to issue the parties passing, failing and warning marks will ultimately rest with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice or President George W. Bush, officials said.
A senior official said final judgments “will come from the U.S. government as an institution, not an individual”.
Some former and current officials questioned the effectiveness of monitoring conducted largely in secret.
“Not conducting diplomacy in the glare of the public is often a good way to go,” said former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State John Wolf, who served for seven months as chief U.S. monitor of the “road map” after its launch in 2003.
“But if it is done in secret, and if it stays secret, it gives people the opportunity to question our even-handedness,” said Wolf, whose own assessments as monitor were kept secret.
Senior Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said U.S. judgments should not be hidden because “the whole point of it is to tell the world who is implementing and who is not”.
A Western diplomat said of plans to maintain secrecy: “Both sides don’t want to be publicly blamed for their shortcomings.”
Another diplomat said: “Hush hush means no effectiveness”.
Israel fears crisis with U.S. over impasse in peace talks
A senior adviser to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Israel may come into conflict with the United States over increased pressure by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to advance talks with the Palestinian Authority. Meanwhile, the Israeli and PA negotiating teams, headed by Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Ahmed Qureia, respectively, are to meet Sunday ahead of Tuesday’s meeting between Olmert and PA President Mahmoud Abbas.
The U.S. might want to up the pressure on Israel to fulfil its obligations in the first stage of the road map, the adviser said in private conversations, particularly removing illegal outposts and freezing construction in the territories.
“Their demands from Israel will only increase and it is not certain that we can meet them under the circumstances,” he added.
The adviser said that in Vice Premier Haim Ramon’s talks with American officials, he had gone “too far in promising them things to please them.”
Another senior government official involved in the talks also warned of expected crises with the Palestinians and the Americans.
“Israel has created a series of far-reaching expectations in the international arena,” this official said, referring to the implementation of the first part of the road map, “but this is not going to happen.”
“There is no political capability either to evacuate settlements or freeze construction in the settlements,” the second official added.
According to this official, the problem will be even greater when negotiations begin on the core issues. “There are detailed files that include Israel’s position on the day negotiations came to a halt in 2001,” he said. “What will happen when they open the Jerusalem file, for example? They’ll find that Israel’s final position at Taba is light-years away from Israel’s opening position today.”
Israel’s main problem is the Palestinians’ lack of faith in Olmert’s and Livni’s intentions. Construction in Har Homa and reports of talks toward a cease-fire with Hamas in Gaza have created great suspicion on the Palestinian side.
The U.S. administration is not satisfied with Israel’s conduct, especially with regard to the tender for new construction in Har Homa and reports of planning for a new neighborhood in Atarot in north Jerusalem.
Livni, the main impetus behind the talks, reportedly wants to keep them low profile to avoid widely-publicized crises like those in the last round of talks between the teams.
Olmert also wants to move the talks ahead, but to do so without breaking up the coalition. Meanwhile, sources in the Prime Minister’s Bureau said that negotiations will not move ahead, at least not before President George W. Bush’s visit on January 9.
One of the problems in the talks is that Israel has still not decided how the political-security establishment will prepare for them.
Olmert met with Livni and Defense Minister Ehud Barak Thursday to discuss the matter.
The main point of agreement among the three is to appoint Brigadier General Udi Dekel as head of the negotiation administration, although it is not clear whether he has accepted the post.