US 'had planned to endorse notion of Palestinian statehood'

War on terrorism: Diplomacy
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The Independent Online

The United States planned to put a new plan to solve the Israel-Palestinian conflict before the UN General Assembly but it was put on the back-burner because of the 11 September attacks, according to US officials.

Details of the initiative were leaked to the US media yesterday, partly to answer European criticism that Washington has shied away from the Middle East problem but also to curry favour among Arab and Islamic nations before the US launches its military counter- attacks. It was also an attempt by the US to pressure Israel's Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, whose conduct since the US atrocities has caused resentment in Washington.

American officials say the US peace moves would have declared support for a Palestinian state, marking the first time that a US Republican president has said this openly. The fact that the proposals would have been outlined by Colin Powell, the US Secretary of State, at the United Nations – an institution treated with disdain by Israel – is also significant.

There was never any doubt that the US, like everyone else, saw the Oslo peace process as a path towards the creation of a Palestinian nation alongside Israel. Yet there is invariably an angry reaction from the Israeli right wing, now in office, when this is acknowledged by its closest ally. Israeli policy makers prefer the notion that Palestinian statehood is still open to negotiation and were furious last week when the Foreign Office placed an article in the Iranian press, under the name of Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, referring to Palestine.

President Bush said yesterday that a Palestinian state was "always part of a vision, so long as the right of Israel to exist is respected", adding that there had been no change in US policy. His administration has so far been divided over how far to venture into the vote-losing Middle East morass.

Britain and other European nations have sought to convince the White House that it will be hard for Arab and Islamic nations to weather the domestic fall-out from a US-led attack against Muslims if emotions at street level are stoked up by television images of Israeli soldiers killing teenage Palestinian stone-throwers.

Mr Bush's remarks yesterday suggesthe has taken the point. He won swift support from the Prime Minister, Tony Blair. In his speech to the Labour Party conference, Mr Blair emphasised Israel's right to international recognition, and a terror-free existence, but said the Palestinians "must have justice, a chance to prosper, and to live in their own land as equal partners to Israel".

Since 11 September, the United States has been steadily increasing its involvement in the Middle East. US officials say Mr Bush and General Powell have made dozens of telephone calls urging both sides to enforce a truce and return to negotiations as America seeks to clear the path for coalition building before the forthcoming attacks against Osama bin Laden's al-Qa'ida movement and the Taliban.