Mideast Huddle At Crawford Ranch

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CBS News Reporter Charles Wolfson is a former Tel Aviv bureau chief for CBS News, who now covers the State Department.


Consider this: Last month was the first in four and a half years in which no Israeli was killed in a terror attack.

That fact alone may not convince President Bush to see prospects for peace in a different light as he hosts Israel's Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, at his Crawford, Texas ranch on Monday, but the meeting does present an opportunity for Mr. Bush to spend some of the political capital he said he gained by winning a second term. Since he has also indicated he's willing to push for an Israeli-Palestinian peace accord, the president has a chance to show he is serious.

Israel's disengagement from Gaza will be the main topic of discussion in Crawford. There are political, economic and security aspects to the disengagement and all will be covered, say those familiar with the agenda. Analysts who follow the situation closely say there are many uncertainties which still hang over the process and very little time left before more than 7,500 Israelis begin moving out of 21 settlements the last week of July.

The core of the problem is a lack of coordination between Sharon's government and the Palestinian government headed by President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen).

The Palestinian leader is under heavy pressure from some factions not to coordinate the details of the disengagement, since it was Sharon's unilateral decision and the Palestinians see Gaza as occupied territory. There are plenty of concerns - even expectations - that some extremists will attack withdrawing settlers, if only to claim the Israelis withdrew under fire.

There are many issues which need to be addressed, including what will happen to the buildings that Israel has now said it prefers to leave behind.

Do the Palestinians want to know about the electrical grid and water pipeline infrastructure? Do Israelis hand over the blueprints or do they take everything with them?

If there is no security coordination, will Palestinians stampede into the vacated settlements seeking better housing conditions? And what if Hamas wins in the parliamentary elections scheduled for July? Will a Sharon-led government deal with them?

Dennis Ross, the former chief Middle East envoy, says the Bush administration has to be more active. "We need to define the road map. Now it's just slogans," said Ross, author of "The Missing Peace." He cautions that the parties may be missing a moment to make progress while they wait for each other to act first.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has appointed a security coordinator, Lt. General William Ward, to help the Palestinians revamp their security services, but Brig. General Michael Herzog, formerly a senior aide to Israel's Minister of Defense and now a fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, says Ward is making very little progress and movement is very slow.

Herzog notes a "widening gap of expectations on both sides." Israel expects the Palestinian Authority to make more of an effort to take weapons out of the hands of extremists and the Palestinians say they've declared a cease fire and expect Israel to relax its restrictions on Palestinians moving around the West Bank.

Although the two sides do not seem able to meet with any regularity in the region, the Aspen Institute was able to get Israelis and Palestinians together in Washington this week to talk about the economic aspects of disengagement.

Israel's Vice Premier, Shimon Peres, emphasized the need for economic development and private sector help to bear some of the costs of disengagement, which Israelis say will cost an estimated one billion dollars. He has put forth the idea that Washington appoint an economic coordinator - similar to Ward on security - to address these issues, and that idea is being considered by the administration.

There are areas of clear disagreement between Washington and Jerusalem, chief among them the freeze on settlement building that is part of the road map.

Mr. Bush has restated his position that there should be a freeze and has told reporters he'd again make that clear to Sharon. But the Israeli prime minister has deflected this concern before and, in part to satisfy his right wing critics, there are already public announcements in Israel about plans to build more housing units in Maale Adumim near Jerusalem. Although construction is not imminent, the plans are a concern both for Abu Mazen - who is expected to visit the White House soon - and for the Bush administration..

The Crawford talks will touch on these points but the one day meeting, observers close to the issue say, is likely to lead to nothing more than a reaffirmation of the administration's road map plan, of positions previously taken and a general recommitment to proceed in stages.

Any disagreements will likely be in the "We agree to disagree" category. Many would like Mr. Bush to push both sides more boldly but that group does not include the Israeli prime minister.


By Charles Wolfson
  • Lauren Johnston

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