- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 26, 2003

The Bush administration is using some of Israel’s strongest American allies both inside and outside the U.S. government as leverage to prod Prime Minister Ariel Sharon toward peacemaking.

The efforts, which come after a lull in violence and the emergence of a new Palestinian prime minister, are aimed at encouraging Israel to alleviate hardships for the Palestinians with a pullback of Israeli troops on the West Bank and an easing of roadblocks to Palestinian travel.

However, Palestinian officials took little comfort yesterday from a U.S. decision to deduct $289.5 million from loan guarantees to Israel, saying the move would do little to force Israel to end settlement construction or stop building a security barrier.

The deduction, taken from $9 billion in guarantees promised over three years, reflected the amount Israel is spending on parts of the barrier that cut into the West Bank, as well as other Israeli construction there.

“We want steps from the Americans that will definitely stop the settlements and the wall to give peace a chance,” Palestinian Cabinet Minister Saeb Erekat said. “I’m afraid that this step, as a message, will not deter Israel.”

Zalman Shoval, a senior adviser to Mr. Sharon, confirmed Israel’s intention to continue building the barrier. No deduction should be made for the barrier “because this is a security matter,” he said. “Israel is prepared to give up money when the subject is defending the lives of its people.”

Nevertheless, the Bush administration will continue its peacemaking efforts by sending Assistant Secretary of State William Burns to the region tomorrow to talk with Israeli, Palestinian and Egyptian officials.

The administration also is pursuing more unusual lines of diplomacy, among them sending Elliott Abrams, who heads the Near East desk at the White House’s National Security Council, to meet with Mr. Sharon last week while the prime minister was visiting Rome.

Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, another of Israel’s staunchest friends in the Bush administration, recently met with Israeli Adm. Ami Ayalon and Palestinian professor Sari Nusseibeh and praised a private peace petition campaign they are spearheading.

U.S. officials yesterday invited the two men to meet with Secretary of State Colin L. Powell on Dec. 12 in Washington, said Dimitri Diliani, Mr. Nusseibeh’s spokesman.

The grass-roots peace plan calls for the creation of a Palestinian state in nearly all the West Bank and Gaza. Palestinians then would give up their demand to return to homes they lost during the 1948 Mideast war.

Mr. Powell also has gone out of his way to encourage former Israeli Justice Minister Yossi Beilin and former Palestinian Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo, who have drawn up a similar plan under Swiss sponsorship in Geneva. That plan, which has angered the Sharon administration, is to be signed formally next week.

Mr. Powell’s spokesman, Richard Boucher, said the Bush administration is not engaged in “some kind of end run around leaders in the region.”

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