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U.S. Close to Proposing Interim Palestinian State

Mideast: The plan for land held by Arafat hinges on an end to attacks on Israel.


WASHINGTON -- President Bush is expected to call for an interim Palestinian state in a speech next week--possibly as early as Tuesday--after final deliberations this weekend on his vision for breaking the deadlock in the Middle East peace process, according to U.S. and Middle East officials.

But Bush's proposal for an interim state, basically occupying an area no greater than the territory now controlled by the Palestinian Authority, will depend heavily on an end to violence against Israel and possibly other steps that Bush's foreign policy team will spend the weekend debating, U.S. officials say.

The idea behind an interim state is to generate hope among the Palestinians and to undermine the belief among them that violence against Israel is the only means to move to eventual creation of a larger, permanent state, administration officials say.

Creating the formal mechanisms of an interim state--including a constitution, national assembly and judiciary--also could weaken the decisive role Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat has played and disperse power among others, the officials say. That is a major goal for both Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

The U.S. officials, who are well placed to know administration deliberations on the Middle East, all requested anonymity when discussing the sensitive issue.

After Bush's anticipated announcement, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell is expected to travel to the troubled region to consult with Israelis, Palestinians and moderate Arab leaders in advance of an international conference in July, according to U.S. officials and Middle East envoys in Washington. A possible site for the conference is Turkey, the officials say.

Although the broad strokes of an administration peace proposal have emerged after six weeks of talks between Bush and Middle East leaders, the president's foreign policy team still has key differences to settle before he takes what would be one of his boldest steps in foreign policy.

The most contentious debate concerns how this new approach to the peace process will unfold--and the split in Washington mirrors to a certain degree the opposing positions in the Middle East.

Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres on Thursday endorsed the concept of an interim state. And Sharon, who earlier accepted the principle of an eventual permanent Palestinian state, has not rejected the interim proposal. But Israel first wants a strict sequence of steps set up--beginning with strong action by the Palestinians to end suicide bombings and other acts of violence, according to Israeli envoys in Washington.

That would be followed by major reforms of the Palestinian Authority, the current governing structure. The final step would be an interim state.

"No right-minded Israeli official is going to agree to give more political power to the Palestinian Authority ... when that body is as it is today. It sponsors terrorism, is untrustworthy, and it doesn't live up its commitments," an Israeli diplomat said. "No one will agree to an interim or provisional state that is a mirror of what it is today."

The debate over what conditions or requirements should be imposed on the Palestinians to achieve an interim state is "strenuous," said a well-placed administration official. "How onerous those requirements might be is not clear."

Israel has strong backing in its position from Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, as well as from congressional leaders, according to U.S. officials.

But the leaders of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and Morocco--backed by the 22-nation Arab League--have pressed hard for simultaneous progress on security measures and creation of an interim or permanent Palestinian state. Powell and CIA Director George J. Tenet have argued that the two phases should to some extent go hand in hand.

The Arabs have also called for a timeline on the negotiation process to put pressure on both sides to resolve differences and provide hope for Palestinians that the political issues will not be indefinitely in limbo. During talks with Bush last week, Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak called for a final settlement within two to three years.

Cheney, Rumsfeld and some members of the National Security Council are dubious about a timeline. Powell, who has borne the brunt of appeals from Arab leaders, also has concerns, but he wants some mechanism to keep both sides focused on a final settlement and avoid yet another deadlock.

"There's an inherent aversion to timelines, and Powell shares it," said a State Department official. "There are lots of folks who consider a timeline a built-in formula for failure. It dares both sides not to comply with it."

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