The US is preparing a plan to station third party troops in the West Bank to secure the area after an Israeli withdrawal and before the Palestinian Authority can take over full security control, The Jerusalem Post has learned. The issue of how to deal with the period between when Israel leaves large swaths of the West Bank and the PA is able to take over control is likely to be discussed during talks President George W. Bush will hold in Jerusalem and in the PA on Wednesday and Thursday. US Special Envoy for Middle East Security James Jones has been assigned the task of preparing a plan on this issue within six moths. A number of options are being considered, including the involvement of NATO troops or Jordanian and Egyptian forces. Jones, a former Marine Corps general, was NATO's top military commander from 2003 to 2005. He visited here on December 18, and discussed the concept with his Israeli interlocutors. US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who appointed Jones immediately after November's Annapolis Conference, hinted at this role in a briefing she gave reporters on her way to the PA donors' conference in Paris in mid-December. Rice said at the time that the establishment of a Palestinian state "will raise questions about a security vacuum when Israelis leave the West Bank. And this is not an issue just for the Palestinians. It's an issue for the states in the area as well, like Jordan and Egypt." Therefore, she said, there needed to be a "hard look" from a military expert on what the possible vacuums could "look like when you create a Palestinian state," and on how to deal with them. When Jones was first appointed it was widely assumed that he would take on the role as arbiter after Israel and the Palestinians have implemented their respective road map obligations. According to the joint Israeli-Palestinian understanding that Bush read out in Annapolis, the sides agreed to "form an American, Palestinian and Israeli mechanism, led by the United States, to follow up on the implementation of the road map." "The United States will monitor and judge the fulfillment of the commitment of both sides of the road map," the understanding continued. While Jones was originally believed to be the main candidate for the arbiter position, it quickly became clear, the Post has learned, that he did not want it. The exact makeup of this mechanism is expected to be one of the issues that Bush is expected to bring up during his visit. In an interview he gave earlier this month to Al-Arabiya television, and at a briefing he gave to foreign reporters in the White House, Bush stressed the importance of the arbitration mechanism to the current diplomatic process. Bush, when told by the Al-Arabiya interviewer that the settlements were the main obstacle to peace, replied, "No question the settlement activity is a problem. But there's a mechanism to deal with that, and that is the road map commission, for the best word - is the trilateral commission, which we head, to deal with these road map issues." While the details of this commission have not been finalized, the rough contours are as follows:
A team from the US Embassy in Tel Aviv will monitor Israel's compliance with its road map obligations, namely freezing settlement activity, and a team from the US Consulate in Jerusalem will monitor the Palestinians' compliance with their obligations, namely fighting terrorism and dismantling the terrorist infrastructure.
The data from both teams will be sent to Washington, where the head of the commission - who has not yet been named - will study the material, and when necessary interface bilaterally with the Israelis or the Palestinians, depending on the case, to get them to implement their obligations.
At times, Israeli and Palestinians officials will be called to meet together with the American team to discuss violations.
Although the idea behind the plan is not to publicly rebuke the sides, the head of the commission is expected to periodically issue reports on how the sides are fulfilling their obligations. It is expected that the commission head will have a security background and be based in Washington, and come here from time to time as needed.
While this has all not yet been finalized, it is clear that what the US has in mind is less a road map referee, and more a road map coach who will prod the sides into doing what is expected.
Within this framework, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, during his talks this week with Bush, is expected to try to reach clearer definitions regarding construction in east Jerusalem and the settlements, so that Israel is not judged by the new mechanism to be in violation of its road map obligations if it builds in neighborhoods in the capital's east or in the large settlement blocs.
Olmert, in an interview last week with the Post, said that while the road map called for a freeze to settlement activity, including natural growth, "if everything began and ended with that, then that's what we have to do according to our commitment. But as you know well, America, which sponsored the road map, President Bush, on the 14th of April, 2004, sent a letter that said one can't ignore the demographic reality unfolding in the territories and that this will certainly need to be given expression in the agreements between us and the Palestinians. And this, I would say, renders flexible to a degree the significance of what is written in the road map."
Olmert is expected to try to define this "flexibility" more clearly during his talks with Bush.
In a related development, Olmert is expected to hold another meeting with PA President Mahmoud Abbas on Tuesday in an effort to achieve some progress to present to Bush on Wednesday. In this same regard, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni met with PA negotiator Ahmed Qurei on Monday. No details of those talks, believed to have dealt with creating a framework for the continuation of bilateral Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, were made available.
Olmert, according to government officials, will raise with Abbas Israel's concern over the firing of a rocket at Ashkelon from Gaza last week, as well as the involvement of Fatah operatives in terrorism and the discovery of an embryonic Kassam factory in Nablus.
Livni, meanwhile, toured the West Bank Monday and said Israel would continue with its military actions even as negotiations with the Palestinians went ahead. She said Israel had no intention of "throwing the key to the other side and hoping for the best." She also received a briefing on the settlement outposts.