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Mideast Plan a Tough Sell

Policy: An expected Bush proposal for an interim Palestinian state could be risky, experts say. It also raises a host of difficult issues.


WASHINGTON — The proposal to create an interim Palestinian state that President Bush is expected to make this week may jump-start the Middle East peace process, but it is likely to raise a host of thorny questions that will have to be addressed before the new entity can become a reality, according to U.S. analysts and regional experts.

The concept is vulnerable to opposition from Palestinians and Israelis, as well as to new rounds of violence, Americans with long experience in mediating the half-century-old conflict warn.

"It doesn't matter whether the idea is an interim state or a final state or different variations in between, if the realities on the ground don't change, then we won't have a chance to pursue any of them," said Dennis B. Ross, special Middle East envoy during the administrations of Bush's father and President Clinton.

In historical and legal terms, the interim state concept is unique and would require extensive diplomacy to fully define and major international pressure to realize, analysts say. "It's not going to be a kind of state in the remaking, like Afghanistan. It's not going to be a state in the making like East Timor. Both had either formal or informal trusteeships over them. The international community came in, in one form or another, and oversaw the process of building the state or rebuilding it," said Martin Indyk, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel.

The Bush administration national security team--including Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, CIA Director George J. Tenet, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice and White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr.--spent the weekend meeting behind closed doors to work out details of the proposal. But they will have to leave many issues for the Israelis and Palestinians to decide--and that's where deadlock could once again set in, analysts say.

The concept also could have a far-reaching impact on other hot spots. An interim state would set a precedent; opposition and secessionist movements worldwide might want to follow the Palestinian model to achieve eventual statehood, constitutional lawyers and international affairs experts predict.

"It's new. It's risky. And it's possibly the best possible solution for the Middle East right now," said Paul Williams, a former State Department lawyer who is now an American University professor of law and international relations. "But it's also quite possible that others--like Sri Lanka's Tamil Tigers or the Basques of Spain or Russia's Chechens or Iraq's Kurds or dozens of other groups--could look around and say, 'If the Palestinians are getting an interim state, why don't we?' "

In the Middle East, the concept's viability will depend on the answers to several questions, such as where an interim state's authority would begin and end. One version of the proposal debated over the weekend calls for the Palestinians to have a seat at the United Nations--where they now have "permanent observer" status--and at other international organizations, as well as the power to sign treaties, according to U.S. officials.

More problematic will be the interim state's jurisdiction at home.

The Bush proposal is expected to defer the three difficult issues of a final settlement--the borders of a permanent Palestine, the status of Jerusalem and the right of Palestinian refugees to return, U.S. officials say. Thus, the interim state's borders and capital--probably the West Bank city of Ramallah--would be temporary.

But the borders of the current Palestinian Authority--about 40% of the West Bank and two-thirds of the Gaza Strip--have been complicated by the recent Israeli military incursion into the West Bank, experts say. The Israeli army operates in several areas that are now only nominally under Palestinian control, Indyk said.

In addition, many of the Palestinian institutions and security forces were destroyed during the incursion.

"For now, there's no capability in place on the Palestinian side to stop the violence, so there's no basis for the [Israeli] army to withdraw," Indyk said. "So it's not clear what borders there would be and what policing mechanism would be available to maintain order. The security institutions are being rebuilt, but they don't have any capability at the moment."

The border issue has led Palestinians to raise doubts about the interim state idea, especially since the Arab world has demanded that Israel return all territories it occupied in the 1967 Middle East War. Some Palestinians question whether an interim state would prove a trap, leaving them indefinitely with little more than what has been the Palestinian Authority.

"We've heard of provisional government, but I have never heard of a provisional state," said Ali Jirbawi, a Palestinian political scientist at Bir Zeit University in the West Bank. "What does it mean? Is it a state that is supposed to continue growing until it reaches the 1967 borders, or would it be a cantonized state? Nobody knows."

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