Bibi to face US challenge

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AMERICA is to try once again to move forward the deep-frozen Middle East process by putting forward a plan for Israeli withdrawals from the West Bank.

Dennis Ross, the US peace envoy, is to travel to Israel at the end of the week to unveil the American proposals to the Israeli government which include a pull-back of 13.1 per cent, more than Israel is prepared to offer but far less than the Palestinians expected to get under a peace treaty signed three years ago.

In the wake of the Iraq crisis in February, when the US found that failure to put pressure on Israel undermined its alliance with the Arab states against Saddam Hussein, there are signs of greater US urgency in mediating between Israel and the Palestinians. Kofi Annan, the UN Secretary-General, yesterday arrived in Gaza for a meeting with Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, though not bearing his own peace proposals.

In a surprising development, the Israeli press says the US will set up a joint committee with the Palestinians to monitor the expansion of Israeli settlement. The Daily Haaretz says there will be nothing on settlements in the US initiative, but that Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister, has agreed in principle that Israel will give a letter to the US or Jordan saying it will reduce settlement activity.

The Israeli cabinet has objected to the figure of 13.1 per cent for the next stage of its withdrawal. At the heart of the disagreement is the accord signed by Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli leader murdered in 1995, which would have given control of the West Bank to the Palestinians. Mr Netanyahu is determined to prevent the development of a de facto Palestinian state by limiting their control to urban enclaves.