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Bush's Mideast Plan Nears Completion but Skirts Key Issues


WASHINGTON — After almost two weeks of intensive debate within the administration, the details of President Bush's proposal to jump-start the Middle East peace process is taking final shape, according to administration officials.

The current draft of Bush's speech, U.S. officials said Friday, is steering away from any bold or risky initiative on two of the most pivotal issues: the eventual borders of a permanent Palestinian state and the timeline to achieve it. If the final version of the speech is equally vague about those questions, it may anger Palestinians and key Arab governments that have called on the White House to take a more resolute stand.

On the final borders of a permanent state, the draft does not call for the return of all territory occupied by Israel during the 1967 Middle East War. Instead, it opts to adopt long-standing language from United Nations Resolution 242, according to U.S. officials. The resolution calls for the return of territory conquered by Israel, but it does not stipulate "all" occupied land or define precisely the territory it means. That has spawned controversy over the resolution's interpretation for years.

The current draft of Bush's speech is "very squishy" on final borders, said a well-placed administration source who requested anonymity.

On the timeline issue, the draft offers a performance-based progression toward a permanent state and does not stipulate the two- or three-year deadline requested by the Arabs and Palestinians.

"It places the responsibility on the Palestinians to fulfill certain obligations and responsibilities that will lead to a state," said a State Department official who requested anonymity.

Other major issues remain to be sorted out, such as what rights a new Palestinian state with provisional borders would have and what it would be entitled to do, according to State Department officials.

Questions that have been under debate all week include whether a Palestinian state would be able to print money, issue bonds, become a member of the World Trade Organization or join the United Nations as a full member with full voting rights.

A state with provisional borders would be charting new territory in international law, particularly because there would be no trusteeship by the United Nations or another country.

Another issue still being discussed is Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Both the current and past administrations have called for a freeze on such development but have largely been ignored.

As the week progressed, Bush's thinking about the details of his peace plan has been heavily influenced by events in the region, U.S. officials say. The White House does not want to be seen to be rewarding the Palestinians at the very time militants have launched a new round of attacks or asking Israel to make concessions under those circumstances.

"There is serious opposition to saying anything critical of Israel in the wake of these terrorism bombings," the State Department official said.

Bush's top foreign policy team met again Friday and is expected to hold talks this weekend on the final points of the plan.

The speech could come as soon as Monday, the sources said. But it might be delayed until Bush returns late next week from a meeting in Canada of the Group of 8 leading industrialized nations.

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