The Bush administration is prepared to further delay publication of a Middle East peace plan until after a new Israeli government is formed, probably six weeks from now, sources said yesterday.
The plan, known as the "road map," is designed to implement President Bush's call in June for the creation of a Palestinian state within three years. U.S. officials had suggested the plan would be released after the Israeli elections last Tuesday, a condition that European and U.N. diplomats had agreed to reluctantly when they met with Bush last month.
The new delay is necessary, U.S. officials believe, because the makeup of Israel's new governing coalition will help determine its response to the plan. But with war against Iraq increasingly likely in March, many experts believe that the new timetable is unrealistic and that the administration would press to delay the plan until after the confrontation with Iraq were resolved.
The road map, mostly a summary of various plans released since the Palestinian uprising began two years ago, envisions a three-stage process that would create Palestinian institutions, establish provisional borders for a state by the end of this year and reach a final agreement with defined borders in 2005.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who is to meet with Bush today at Camp David to discuss Iraq, is prepared to make the case that progress on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict -- symbolized by publication of the road map -- must be made to assuage public opinion in the Arab world if a war is begun. After Ariel Sharon's commanding victory Tuesday, when his Likud Party crushed rivals advocating more conciliatory policies toward the Palestinians, other European officials also demanded that the plan be released now.
In recent statements and speeches, Sharon has suggested he will craft his own plan. He has argued it will be truer to Bush's vision than the outline painstakingly negotiated by diplomats since August. In December, the administration had toughened up language in the document in response to Israeli requests. But Israeli officials believe the administration will be receptive to additional changes.
Meanwhile, Flynt Leverett, a key National Security Council staff member on Middle East policy, is expected to leave his position shortly, sources said. Leverett was the White House official most closely identified with the road map, and he was elevated to senior director for Middle East initiatives in December. At the same time, Bush named Elliott Abrams, who had written skeptically on land-for-peace negotiations with the Palestinians, as assistant to the president for Near East affairs, overseeing Arab-Israeli issues.
Secretary of State Colin L. Powell spoke passionately about resolving the conflict when he addressed diplomats and financiers in Davos, Switzerland, earlier this week. "My heart grieves when I think about the situation in the Middle East," he said. He noted that he has told the Israelis that "a Palestinian state, when it's created, must be a real state, not a phony state that's diced into a thousand different pieces."
But the State Department has often found itself at odds with the White House and other agencies on the topic of Middle East. Sharon, for instance, often bypasses the U.S. ambassador in Tel Aviv and communicates directly with the White House.
In a speech two weeks ago, Sharon boasted that he had "cemented Israel's status in the White House and on Capitol Hill" and that "the understanding, cooperation and coordination with them have reached an unprecedented level," constituting "a primary political and strategic asset to the state of Israel."
An Arab diplomat involved in the development of the road map said he found Sharon's suggestions that he would craft a plan "very frustrating and very alarming." He said he found it "ironic and incredulous that he thinks the White House and State Department cannot interpret Bush's vision, that they need the Israelis to do it."
Arab diplomats said they also were dismayed that Bush devoted only one line to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in a State of the Union address. "In the Middle East, we will continue to seek peace between a secure Israel and a democratic Palestine," Bush said.
In a meeting yesterday at the White House with Saudi Foreign Minister Saud Faisal to discuss Iraq, Bush reaffirmed he wanted to address the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. "I was also very much impressed by what the president said about the need to move on the Middle East question as quickly as possible," Faisal told reporters.
In a sign that Arabs are eager to jumpstart the process themselves, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak telephoned Sharon on Wednesday and suggested they meet to discuss ways to end the conflict. The meeting would be the first for Sharon with an Arab leader since he was elected two years ago.