Tension between Jerusalem and Washington is intensifying over the latter's frustration over the stasis in the West Bank, especially with regard to the removal of roadblocks and the evacuation of settlement outposts. The Americans feel that Israel is not keeping its promises to improve the day-to-day life of West Bank Palestinians.
A trilateral committee to monitor implementation of the first stage of the road map is scheduled to hold its first meeting on Friday. The meeting will be conducted by U.S. General William Fraser, who was appointed by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to follow progress on the road map. Defense Minister Ehud Barak was originally set to attend the meeting, but he decided to send a senior adviser, Amos Gilad, in his stead. That could prove embarrassing, as the Palestinian side will be represented by Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.
A senior Israeli official said the meeting is expected to be difficult, as Fraser is expected to present a report of road map violations likely to be critical of Israel's failure to remove roadblocks and its continued settlement construction. On the other hand, the official noted, the Palestinians can expect criticism over last week's terror attack in Jerusalem and other issues related to the war on terror.
"Real tension has developed with the Americans, and if there are no steps on the ground we will find ourselves in big trouble," the Israeli source said. He added that in the eyes of the Americans and of other members of the international community, "a gap has developed between the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations on the core issues and events on the ground." He said the Americans feel the Israeli military is not taking action to ease civilian life in the West Bank.
Rice repeatedly speaks about "steps on the ground," usually in reference to the lifting of restrictions on movement in the West Banks and the removal of roadblocks, as well as the evacuation of illegal outposts and an end to settlement expansion. Most of Rice's frustration is directed at Barak. In their meeting during her visit to the region last week, Rice reiterated her demand to see "steps on the ground" in the West Bank.
She told a press conference that neither Israel nor the Palestinian Authority had done enough to meet their commitments since last November's Annapolis conference.
Yesterday Rice spoke again about violations of the road map, specifically mentioning that Israel's recent announcements of new construction plans in East Jerusalem and the West Bank were "unhelpful" to the peace process.
Quartet envoy Tony Blair is also unhappy about Israel's activities on the West Bank and its failure to take steps to improve Palestinian civilian life. He said as much to Barak during their meeting on Wednesday. While Blair is still optimistic about his mission, many of the projects he is championing face obstacles, largely due to opposition from the Israeli military establishment.
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