Hamas, PRC Say Will Act to Torpedo New U.S. Benchmarks for Israel, PA

PLO Executive Committee to review U.S. timeline for Israel, PA action on Saturday; Meshal: Document is a farce.

A Hamas spokesman in Gaza said Saturday the group rejects a new U.S. benchmark document detailing actions for both Israel and the Palestinian Authority to implement in the coming months.

"The American plan is rejected and we will work to make it fail by any means and by all means," said Fawzi Baroum, a Hamas spokesman in Gaza, echoing comments by Hamas' political leader Khaled Meshal.

The militant group Popular Resistance Committees also rejected the document. "The U.S. plan does not serve our people's interests," said PRC spokesman Abu Abeer on Saturday, vowing that "the [PRC] will work to make it fail."

The Damascus-based leader is the main powerbroker in Hamas.

The document, recently submitted to Israel and the Palestinians, calls on Israel to remove many West Bank roadblocks and improve operations at Gaza's crossings.

The Palestinians are asked to halt rocket fire from Gaza and weapons smuggling into the coastal strip.

Meshal told a rally in Syria on Friday that the Palestinians should not agree to halt rocket fire in exchange for an easing of travel restrictions.

"I swear it's a farce ... the equation has now become: dismantling the checkpoints, in exchange for [giving up] resistance," he said in comments carried by Al-Jazeera. "This has become the Palestinian cause."

Israel said Meshal's comments show the true nature of the group. "We never had any illusions as to the policies and goals of the Hamas and unfortunately his remarks do not come as a surprise," Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said.

Chief Palestine Liberation Organization negotiator Saeb Erekat said however that the document was reviewed by the PLO Executive Committee, a top decision-making body, on Saturday.

Erekat said the Palestinians welcomed the timeline as the only way to translate words into action, but did not formally adopt the document in light of Israeli reservations.

Instead, the Palestinians would ask the Quartet of Mideast mediators - the U.S., the UN, the European Union and Russia - to deal with implementation, he said.

On Sunday, PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas was to head to Gaza to brief Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas on the benchmarks.

U.S. official: Benchmarks won't be imposed on Israel, PA

Deputy U.S. State Department spokesman Tom Casey said Friday that the United States would not impose the demands listed in the document on either side.

He also said that there are no deadlines for taking the recommended actions.

"These are suggestions and ideas that we have circulated, it's not any kind of formal agreement nor is it something that is being enforced on anybody," he told reporters.

"There is no effort to try and say 'Next week, you'll do this, the week after that, you'll do that,'" Casey said. "The idea would be to do these in fairly quick order, though."

He said the measures are related to implementing phase one of the road map peace plan for the region.

The timeline, meant to bolster Israeli-Palestinian talks, met its first resistance on Friday when Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's office said it could not commit to some of the demands, citing security concerns.

The officials raised concerns Israel was being asked to ease restrictions on Palestinian movements without assurances that Abbas has completed his own commitments on security.

While Israel appeared prepared to lift restrictions in the West Bank starting in mid-May, it has serious reservations about other demands, including one that would allow Palestinian bus convoys to travel between Gaza and the West Bank by July 1, officials said.

"Some of the ideas Israel is already implementing, others are already well advanced, and there are some that Israel will not be able to address in the present because of security concerns," an official in Olmert's office said.

Israeli resistance to elements of the U.S. plan followed an earlier rift between the close allies over Washington's decision to hold limited contacts with non-Hamas ministers in a Palestinian unity government

Senior officials had feared a confrontation with Washington over the document of benchmarks it presented to Israel and the PA setting a detailed timetable for measures each side must implement.

The document sets a schedule for removing roadblocks and opening passages in the territories and upgrading the Palestinian forces loyal to Abbas. Israel is also urged to approve requests for weapons, munitions and equipment required by defense forces loyal to Abbas.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is to arrive on May 15 to discuss implementing the plan.

Officials in the defense establishment object to several issues in the document, especially the demand to expand the operation of the passages in the Gaza Strip and the removal of many roadblocks in the West Bank.

These officials believe that the benchmarks involve security risks.

Israel has not responded officially to the document and an inter-ministerial discussion on it was postponed on Thursday.

The Prime Minister's Bureau is still waiting for the positions of the defense establishment, Foreign Ministry and Shin Bet vis-a-vis on the plan.

The document, which Haaretz has obtained, sets a rigid timetable for implementing measures on either side.

The document was written by the U.S. security coordinator, Major General Keith Dayton, U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dick Jones and U.S. Consul-General in Jerusalem Jacob Walles.

It was sent to Washington, where it was approved by Secretary of State Rice before it was presented to Israel and the PA. However, both Israel and the PA's official answer to the document is still pending.

Palestinian sources told Haaretz that the PA has accepted the document, but it fears that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert will sabotage the turning of it into an agreement due to his precarious political situation.

If both sides accept the document it will become a binding agreement.

Rice was scheduled to arrive in mid-May to obtain both sides' approval of the document, but her visit may be postponed in view of the political situation in Israel.

Benchmarks include ongoing assistance to Abbas' forces

The document demands, among other things, that Israel approve and support in an "immediate and ongoing" manner the requests of U.S. security coordinator Dayton for the provision of required armaments, ammunition and equipment for security forces under the control of and reporting to the PA chairman in the West Bank and Gaza.

Each clause is accompanied by a precise timetable for implementation. For example, Israel and the PA are required to establish, no later than July 1, 2007, a bus convoy service operating five days a week between the Erez checkpoint at the entrance to the Gaza Strip and the Tarqumiya roadblock at the entrance to Hebron for passengers from Gaza and the West Bank.

Israel is required to remove specific roadblocks and other traffic and movement restrictions in the West Bank at specified dates. For example, Israel must remove restrictions and provide access no later than June 1, 2007 in the Bethlehem 1 and 2 clusters, in the Hebron clusters 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 and 8, in Nablus clusters 1, 2, 3 and 4 and in the Tubas 1 cluster.

It must remove roadblocks in the Nablus area and specifically the ones in Beit Iba, Hawara, Awarta, Shavei Shmoron and Beit Foriq no later than June 15.

However, the timetable in the document is not entirely relevant as the measures in it were scheduled to begin on May 1.

Rice agreed on formulating the document during her last visit in Israel and the PA. The Palestinians received the document last Wednesday, April 25. Senior Palestinian sources told Haaretz that the PA accepts its principles, although the PA has not given Washington an official answer yet.

The PA and mainly its defense forces and national security adviser Mohammed Dahlan are required to take a series of clear steps, limited by a timetable.

Dahlan is required to develop a plan against Qassam rockets with the support of Abbas no later than June 21, 2007. The president must deploy these forces no later than that date.

The Palestinian forces are required to act to prevent arms smuggling in the Rafah area in coordination with Israel.

Abbas and Dahlan must subject the defense forces to the PA chairman by June 15.

Both Israel and the Palestinians are required to reestablish the coordination and liaison headquarters in the West Bank.

Meanwhile, Israel is discussing with the European Union the extension of the European observers' mandate at the Rafah passage. The posting of observers enabled Israel's withdrawal from the Philadelphi route and the opening of the passage between Gaza and Egypt.