Palestinians Want More From U.S.

mideast peace talks/roadmap graphic
AP
President Bush's commitment to Mideast peace must include a willingness to invest much-needed cash and to intervene when the going gets rough, according to a senior Palestinian cabinet minister visiting Washington.

Planning Minister Nabil Qassis was meeting Thursday with Assistant Secretary of State William Burns, who is the senior State Department official responsible for nurturing Israeli-Palestinian talks.

Meanwhile, other Palestinian officials say efforts are under way to extend the cease-fire from three months to an indefinite period of time, reports CBS News Correspondent Robert Berger. The Palestinian Authority hopes that a longer truce will get Israel to soften its demand that terrorist groups quickly be dismantled.

Israel is not likely to go along with that and neither are the militants. A leader of the Islamic terrorist group Hamas described the proposal to extend the truce as a dream.

Israel, however, is considering the release of more Palestinian prisoners as a confidence-building measure, as long as they were not directly involved in terrorist attacks.

"The murderers will remain in jail," said Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom.

There may also be the possibility of peace on another front.

Syrian President Bashar Assad has told a United Nations diplomat he was ready to renew peace talks with Israel and to intervene in the case of four Israelis missing in Lebanon, an Israeli newspaper reported on Thursday.

The report, in the Maariv daily, said Bashar made the offer during a meeting with U.N. Mideast envoy Terje Roed-Larsen last week in Damascus.

Israel's foreign minister reacted coolly to the report, saying Syria's conditions for the talks were not acceptable.

Syria has thousands of troops in Lebanon and wields influence with the Hezbollah militia holding Israeli reserve colonel Elhanan Tennenbaum. Hezbollah says Tennenbaum, who disappeared during a trip to Abu Dhabi in October 2000, is connected to Israel's Mossad spy agency. Israel says he is a businessman.

Qassis' visit comes just over a week ahead of Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas' arrival in Washington on July 25 to meet President Bush and discuss the "road map" to end 33 months of violence and establish a Palestinian state by 2005.

Abbas' visit and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's on July 29 could be signs that the truce and pressure to end the violence are working. Sharon's trip, which will be his eighth, was originally set for September but was pushed up, apparently to sustain momentum in the peace moves.

Qassis and two Cabinet colleagues — Labor Minister Ghassan Al-Khatib and Culture Minister Ziad Abu Amr — met this week with some of the Palestinians' toughest critics in Congress, including the top Democrat on the House International Relations Committee, Rep. Tom Lantos of California, a Jewish Holocaust survivor.

The planning minister said greater engagement with the United States was a priority, especially ahead of a request for aid from donor nations he said could reach $1 billion.

The United States is pinning its hopes for the success of the road map on Abbas and his reformist government, but for that to happen, Qassis said, Palestinians need to see results. That means assistance in rebuilding an economy wracked by years of violence and a willingness by Israel to make concessions.

A crucial element, Qassis said, is how committed the United States would be to monitoring implementation.

"Monitoring is not just looking, but putting in benchmarks ... intervening, if necessary," he said. "We believe that this is what is needed to meet targets and keep the process alive."

Qassis didn't elaborate on what intervention he thinks might be necessary, but said he was worried that Israel would roll back on its commitment to reduce its military presence in the West Bank, to stop the practice of detention without charges and to end settlement activity in disputed areas.

Israel for its part wants the Palestinian Authority to show greater toughness in dealing with militant Islamists, responsible for some of the worst terror attacks on Israeli civilians. Abbas has negotiated a temporary cease-fire with the Islamists, but Israel's reception has been lukewarm at best.

Qassis said it was the best way out.

"Some don't believe we are dealing with Hamas and Islamic Jihad without blood in the street," Qassis said. "We see an opportunity to consolidate a lasting cease-fire."