Netanyahu to face US peace 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 this is the first time the Americans will have set up a joint forum with the Palestinians to observe the growth of Israeli settlements. It 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 strongly 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 prime minister assassinated in 1995, which would have effectively 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.

Ghassan Khatib, a Palestinian commentator, says Mr Arafat's willingness to accept the US proposals may largely be because he expects Israel to reject them and wants to win friends in Washington. He says the danger for the Palestinians is that the US compromise is undermining the treaty the Palestinians signed in 1995. He says: "They shouldn't compromise on what is already a compromise."

Mr Khatib argues that a weakness of the Palestinian position is that their leaders act as if there was no alternative to the peace process, which has so far been "useful to Israel, but not the Palestinians". He says the problem is that "Palestinian officials are developing a vested interest in the present situation."