White House officials have held intense discussions with Israeli officials in recent weeks on ways to ease the plight of the Palestinians, lift roadblocks in the occupied territories and deal with other vexing issues that have created a chill in the generally warm relations between President Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, U.S. officials said yesterday.
A key goal is to encourage the Israeli government to take steps that would help the new Palestinian government establish itself, or at least not take actions that would undermine it. U.S. officials are concerned by Israel's proposed route for a fence separating Palestinians and Israelis, which the Bush administration fears could be used to establish the borders of a potential Palestinian state.
A senior administration official, briefing reporters yesterday on Air Force One as Bush flew to Britain, said it was necessary for the Palestinians to build security forces that would fight terrorism. "But it's also still necessary for Israel to create conditions in which a partner can emerge, and that means not prejudging the outcome of a final status agreement with settlements or with the route of the fence," the official said. "It means trying to do something about the kind of daily difficulties that Palestinian people experience at any given checkpoint."
"There is a lot of discussion going on with the Israelis about how they might use this period to give another push" to the peace process, the official added. "We have a new Palestinian prime minister, and I think everybody is prepared to give it a chance."
Sources close to the U.S.-Israeli discussions said the recent tensions did not signify a change in the common strategic outlook of the two countries. But they said there was a growing recognition by Sharon and his government that steps must be taken to accommodate U.S. concerns, particularly on the humanitarian front.
Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz brought a package of proposals when he visited Washington last week, including creating 100,000 to 200,000 jobs for Palestinians in industrial centers on the border, pulling Israeli troops out of key Palestinian cities and lifting a number of roadblocks, an Israeli official said.
"There is frustration with Sharon at the White House," a U.S. official said yesterday. "Issues don't go away and don't get resolved."
Still, European and Arab leaders have argued that the administration has been much too reluctant to pressure Israel in the past. The European Union sharply condemned Israel yesterday for its treatment of the Palestinians, and British Prime Minister Tony Blair is expected to raise the issue with Bush in their meetings this week.
Over the summer, after Bush held two summits to promote a U.S.-backed peace plan known as the "road map," the administration heavily promoted Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian prime minister at the time, as the new face of the Palestinian people. But neither Israelis nor Palestinians took more than token steps to fulfill the obligations in the road map. Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, resigned in September, saying he had been thwarted by Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's actions and Israeli and American inaction.
The Israeli official acknowledged the administration has held detailed and often technical discussions with Israelis on the route of the fence -- a 60-yard-wide complex of ditches, 25-foot-high walls, electronic sensors, roads and steel barriers -- as Israel has proposed to have it veer into Palestinian territories to protect Israeli settlements. The discussions have also centered on such issues as the number of gates in the fence, the number of hours a day they are monitored by Israeli soldiers and whether a fence near Ben-Gurion International Airport is necessary.
"Everyone is cognizant that Abu Mazen failed, and no one wants to let Arafat off the hook," the Israeli official said. "But could the Israelis and the Americans have been more attuned? We do not want to make the same mistake."
U.S. officials are debating whether to deduct the costs of the fence from U.S. loan guarantees to Israel. Some officials say the United States is close to doing so, but one said yesterday that was "wishful thinking in an election year."