The Israeli government will not enter peace negotiations with the Palestinians until newly installed Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas cracks down on terrorist violence, Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom said yesterday in Washington.
Shalom said Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's government is "serious" about working with the Palestinians, but wary of disappointment after two years of attacks and suicide bombings. Abbas, he said, must act decisively and move from under the shadow of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
"He can do it," Shalom told reporters and editors of The Washington Post. "And if he won't do it, he will be like Arafat: irrelevant."
Shalom made clear that the Israeli government wants help from the Bush administration in adapting a Middle East peace plan that calls for significant steps by both sides. The Palestinians and their supporters in the international community believe Israeli and Palestinian actions must be parallel, while the Israelis insist the Palestinians must act first.
In an issue central to the peace plan, Shalom also said Israel would not support a result that confines Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza to their existing boundaries. Palestinians want construction to stop and settlements to be removed.
Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, sharing a lectern with Shalom earlier this week, reaffirmed the current U.S. position that Israel must stop settlement activity as terrorism subsides. The essence of the peace plan, known as the "road map," is not open for discussion, U.S. officials contend to the dismay of Sharon's government.
"The themes, the ideas, the concepts are not negotiable. An end to settlement activity, steps toward security, ending Palestinian suffering," a State Department official said yesterday. "What is going to be elastic will be the time frame, the manner in which we achieve reciprocity, the sequencing, the verification process."
Shalom, recently assigned the diplomatic portfolio in the new Sharon government, was in town to meet President Bush and his foreign policy team. He said he delivered the message that Israel is willing to make concessions, but that the Palestinians must act first and act effectively.
"We won't be able to go forward while the terrorism will continue," declared Shalom, who said previous Israeli prime ministers erred by pursuing political negotiations while violence continued. Sporadic attacks might prove unavoidable, he said, "but if it will be systematic, one attack after another, that's something else."
Bush, who has invested little political capital in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian crisis, has announced the goal of establishing an independent Palestinian state by 2005. He is facing pressure from European and Middle Eastern allies to lean on Sharon to ease military pressure and deliver economic and political openings to the Palestinians.
Shalom said he told Bush that the Israeli government is "fully committed" to the president's "vision," but he left open a path to opposing the road map by suggesting that the seven-page document -- drafted by the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations -- does not correctly reflect that vision.
The road map is not like a document in which "you cannot change any words," Shalom said. He believes the Bush administration "understood that it might be that a few comments will be given by both sides."
U.S. diplomats have no illusions about the difficulty of bringing the two sides together. Assistant Secretary of State William Burns, speaking to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee this week, said, "It's going to be real hard to build that sense of trust."