Israel: Benchmark Timetable Too Tight

U.S. President George W. Bush is considering making an important diplomatic speech on the Middle East, according to reports received in Jerusalem. Sources in Washington say Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's meeting with Bush later this month "could have a decisive effect on the contents of Bush's speech."

June 24 will mark the fifth anniversary of Bush's historic speech on the Middle East in which he unveiled his "two-state vision" for resolving the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. His new speech is intended to survey the achievements secured since then and to delineate a diplomatic course of action for the year and half that remains of his term in office.

Olmert is slated to meet with Bush in the White House on June 19. Officials in Washington told Haaretz that what Olmert will tell Bush could be critical in terms of what Bush will say in his address the following week.

The officials added that it was unclear whether Bush will indeed make the planned speech. They nonetheless confirmed that the possibility was being discussed in the top echelons of Bush's administration.

Olmert's chief of staff, Yoram Turbowicz, and the prime minister's diplomatic adviser, Shalom Turgeman, who visited Washington last week in preparation for Olmert's visit, heard no word on the planned speech during their visit. The issue received no mention in the schedule for the meeting between Olmert and Bush.

Before Olmert leaves for Washington, Israel is expected to give its official response to the benchmarks plan, detailing actions for Israel and the Palestinian Authority to implement in the coming months. The document calls on Israel to remove many West Bank roadblocks and improve operations at Gaza's border crossings. The Palestinians were asked to halt rocket fire from Gaza and weapons smuggling into the Gaza Strip.

Israel's response includes a suggestion to extend the schedule for the plan, which was determined by U.S. security coordinator Major General Keith Dayton. The response also maintains that the lifting of roadblocks be subject to Israel's security considerations.

"We agree that we have not lifted enough roadblocks," a diplomatic official told Haaretz yesterday, "but the American schedule would spell security abandon, which the Americans themselves prefer to avoid."

The Israeli response divides the American demands into three categories:

1. Steps that Israel is prepared to take and is taking, including the crossings issue.

2. Steps that will be examined according to the security conditions, such as allowing Palestinians convoys to travel from the West Bank to Gaza.

3. Steps Israel will not take until the situation radically improves, such as lifting the Hawara checkpoint at the entrance to Nablus.

"Lifting Hawara would mean that a suicide bomber could get from Nablus to Jerusalem undisturbed," diplomatic sources explained.

Olmert is expected to meet Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas Thursday in Jericho. The diplomatic sources believe that the American administration is frustrated with the situation in the West Bank.

According to the sources, Vice President Dick Cheney is skeptical about the extent of control that Abbas wields in the territories. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, by contrast, regards Abbas as a viable partner for negotiations.

Diplomatic sources in Jerusalem pointed to the fact that Olmert had been invited to meet Bush before the second round of Labor's primaries as proof that the White House was confident that Olmert and his cabinet would not be replaced in the near future.