At the request of the Bush administration, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has agreed to consider removing Israeli security forces from Palestinian areas to facilitate Palestinian elections in the next two months, The New York Times reported yesterday.
Israel has serious misgivings about the proposal but is willing to envisage it under certain conditions, such as if Palestinian forces are mobilized in place of Israeli forces, an official close to the talks told the Times.
"When it comes to implementing the decision to have elections in 60 days, the question arises of what you do with the IDF [Israeli Defense Forces]," the official said.
"You want freedom of movement for the Palestinians, but you have to make sure that nothing is done that costs Israeli lives."
A US official told the paper that Washington was concerned about the difficulty of holding elections for a successor to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in the present circumstances.
"How do you conduct elections in 60 days if the Israelis are still all over Gaza and areas of the West Bank?" the official said. "That's been a question we've started to have to think about."
During Arafat's illness and since his death last week, Washington has quietly been urging Israel to help strengthen the standing of Palestinian moderates, ahead of the vote for a new Palestinian leader, the Times said.
Last weekend, Israel released US$40 million in frozen tax funds to the Palestinian Authority, after long resisting the move, the Times said, citing US and Israeli officials.
"The White House and Sharon's office are also discussing other steps to facilitate the elections that are points of dispute between Israel and the Palestinians," the daily said. These include Israeli reluctance to allow Palestinians in the Jerusalem area to vote.
Neither side has said much about the talks for political reasons. Israel does not want to be seen as yielding to US pressure, and President George W. Bush has been reluctant to be seen as pressuring Israel for concessions.
Bush and his principal European ally, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, on Friday pledged to do "whatever it takes" to secure peace between Israeli and the Palestinians, as Palestinians laid Arafat to rest in Ramallah and observers said his death could open the way for peace.
"I believe we've got a great chance to establish a Palestinian state. I would like to see it done in four years. I think it is possible," Bush declared at a joint press conference with Blair after a White House summit.
Bush and Blair outlined a five-point strategy committing to the two-state vision for Israel and a Palestinian state and promising to support Palestinians as they select a new president within 60 days.
They pledged to mobilize the international community for a stronger economy and security in a Palestinian state, endorsed Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plan to withdraw Israeli settlements from Gaza, and claimed these steps would "lay the basis for more rapid progress" on the roadmap to Middle East peace.
After the two leaders spoke, State Department officials said the US was looking at a new round of diplomacy, including a Middle East trip by Secretary of State Colin Powell, to revive the peace process.