Benchmark document only 'informal draft,' US says

A new US document on movement and access that sets deadlines for steps Israel and the Palestinians are expected to fulfill is not a "take it or leave it" document, US diplomatic officials said Tuesday. It is an informal draft meant to serve as a basis for discussion, they said. US Embassy spokesman Stewart Tuttle said the benchmarks were "not a fixed deadline, but a flexible set of targets to help facilitate discussion, engagement and action."
  • Dayton Plan: Benchmarks won't work in the ME The document, presented to Israel and the Palestinian Authority two weeks ago, calls on Israel to remove many West Bank checkpoints, improve operations at Gaza Strip crossings and arrange for a truck route between the West Bank and Gaza. Israel is also urged to allow weapons and equipment to reach security forces loyal to PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas. The Palestinians are asked to halt rocket fire from Gaza and to prevent weapons smuggling. Representatives from the Prime Minister's Office, the Foreign Ministry, the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) and the IDF are expected to meet Thursday to discuss the document. The security cabinet is scheduled to discuss it next week. An internal Israeli debate is brewing over the issue. Defense officials have sharply criticized the plan. They say a link between Gaza and the West Bank would severely undermine efforts to isolate the two areas and keep arms and trained terrorists from moving to the West Bank. Defense officials argue that Israel needs to curtail movement inside the West Bank to keep suicide bombers from infiltrating Israel. But diplomatic officials counter that although the security prism is an important one through which to view the plan, it is not the only one. They say the roadblocks and checkpoints extract a high diplomatic price for Israel around the world. "The Western world, with the exception of the US, sees the roadblocks and checkpoints as a main problem here," one official said. "It is considered collective punishment that bothers everyone, but only weeds out a few terrorists." Damascus-based Hamas chief Khaled Mashaal has already rejected the new US plan. Tuttle said the plan was "one component of an ongoing dialogue with the parties." He said the US would "obviously welcome constructive feedback," but it had not asked either side to formally approve, accept or adapt the document. "This is supposed to be flexible and generate thinking," he said. The benchmark document is expected to be one of the topics of discussion at the next meeting between Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Abbas. Diplomatic officials said this meeting was expected to take place this month, probably in Jericho. Olmert, meanwhile, will travel to Petra next Tuesday, where he is scheduled to meet with Jordanian King Abdullah II on the sidelines of an annual meeting in Jordan of Nobel laureates. Olmert has no other meeting with foreign leaders scheduled at the gathering, sources in the Prime Minister's Office said. Meeting with Olmert at this venue is believed to be much more comfortable for the king than going to Jerusalem or inviting the prime minister for an official visit to Amman. Abdullah is expected to raise the Arab Peace Initiative with Olmert, something that is also expected to be the focus of talks in Cairo on Thursday between Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit and Jordanian Foreign Minister Abdelelah al-Khatib.