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U.S.: Sharon Set To Present Bush With New Peace Plan

After a week of some progress in the Mideast crisis, U.S. President George W. Bush is set to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon at the White House tomorrow. So far, the Bush administration has been criticized for favoring Sharon. But amid a series of new peace initiatives, analysts say it is now up to Bush to pressure Sharon to negotiate a deal.

Washington, 6 May 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is expected to present what he has dubbed "the most serious" Middle East peace plan ever when he meets tomorrow with U.S. President George W. Bush.

Sharon's visit comes after a week of movement in the Mideast crisis. After helping to win the release of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat -- who was confined in his compound for five weeks by Israel -- the U.S. announced on 2 May that an international Mideast peace conference would be held early this summer.

The announcement by Secretary of State Colin Powell -- which came after meetings with officials from Russia, the United Nations, and the European Union -- offers a glimmer of hope that, at the very least, momentum toward peace is building. So far, Arafat has welcomed the idea, while Sharon has made no public comment on it.

But Sharon told U.S. television last week that he will present Bush with his own peace plan. He calls it "a serious plan, maybe the most serious that has been presented by now," on how to reach peace in the Middle East. Israeli media say the plan calls for regional peace talks, long-term interim agreements, and what Sharon calls "painful concessions."

Just what those concessions are is a mystery, however.

Sharon, who has led a month-long march by Israel into the West Bank in response to Palestinian violence, has long said he will never dismantle any Jewish settlements in Arab areas or give up any land Israel won in the 1967 war.

Such concessions form the basis of a recent Saudi peace plan, which in return promises full Arab recognition and normalization of ties with the Jewish state.

But neither Sharon nor the Israeli people appear in the mood for making concessions to Arafat, who rejected what was seen as an unprecedented offer made at Taba, Egypt, in January 2001. Former chief U.S. Middle East envoy Dennis Ross has said it would have given Palestinians all of Gaza, 97 percent of the West Bank and a capital in East Jerusalem.

Instead, the last 19 months of Palestinian "intifada," or uprising, has cost more than 1,300 Palestinian and 400 Israeli lives. And Israelis, by and large, blame Arafat for the violence.

Mideast analyst Judith Kipper thinks Sharon won't have anything new to present to Bush: "I think what he's looking toward is confidence-building, a long interim period which he has proposed many times before, regarding the Palestinians, that they would have autonomy over a long period of time, but that they would not get their state until their confidence is built in an interim way. And I don't think that's going to work."

So what could change Sharon's mind? Stronger American pressure, says Kipper, who co-directs the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank.

"Sharon has yet as prime minister been involved in negotiations. So there have to be negotiations with the mediation of the United States in a sustained and pro-active way and also with the support of the international community, because the U.S. certainly cannot do this by itself." But whether the U.S. is ready to apply increased pressure on Sharon is an open question. Analysts say that, apart from Powell, who is seen as seeking a balanced approach to the crisis, elements in the Bush administration believe in giving Sharon a "free hand."

That impression was reinforced last week when both houses of the U.S. Congress overwhelmingly passed non-binding bills declaring firm support for Israel. And on 3 May, both the State Department and the White House appeared to play down any high expectations for the international conference, whose details have yet to be worked out.

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher told a briefing the meeting will not be a summit of world leaders seeking a final settlement, but simply a meeting to explore ideas with foreign ministers from the international community, the Palestinian Authority and Israel. "The point of the meeting is to get people together, bring these ideas together -- whatever principles can be worked out and other ideas -- to try to create some momentum and look at how to move forward."

But analysts and European Union officials are calling for swift movement toward a political settlement. Kipper says she hopes the announcement of the conference won't start a new "peace process" and but will instead lead quickly to a deal. And one EU official who asked not to be identified said on 3 May that what is needed is a "big bang" -- a short, concerted effort that would lead toward "an immediate peace."

From Sharon's standpoint, that is unlikely to happen. But analysts agree that if he is ever to be persuaded otherwise, the White House is the place to do it.