JERUSALEM, (Reuters) – A U.S. timeline for bolstering Israeli-Palestinian talks met its first resistance on Friday when Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s office said it could not commit to some of the demands, citing security concerns.
The timeline asks Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas by mid-June to start deploying his forces to halt rocket fire and smuggling by Gaza militants, according to officials with access to the document.
It also asks Israel to reciprocate by taking steps to ease the movement of people and goods between the Gaza Strip and the occupied West Bank.
The United States presented the timeline separately to Abbas and Olmert last week, but it is unclear how hard the Bush administration is prepared to push the parties to complete a list of so-called “benchmarks”.
Israeli officials raised concerns Israel was being asked to ease restrictions on Palestinian movements without assurances that Abbas has completed his own commitments on security.
While Israel appeared prepared to lift restrictions in the West Bank starting in mid-May, it has serious reservations about other demands, including one that would allow Palestinian bus convoys to travel between Gaza and the West Bank by July 1, officials said. “Some of the ideas Israel is already implementing, others are already well advanced, and there are some that Israel will not be able to address in the present because of security concerns,” an official in Olmert’s office said.
Israeli resistance to elements of the U.S. plan followed an earlier rift between the close allies over Washington’s decision to hold limited contacts with non-Hamas ministers in a Palestinian unity government.
Olmert is boycotting the cabinet in its entirety.
Abbas could have also have trouble implementing parts of the American plan. A crackdown by forces loyal to his secular Fatah faction could spark a backlash from Hamas’s armed wing and other militant groups behind the rocket attacks against Israel.
Fatah, long dominant under the late Yasser Arafat, formed a unity government with the Hamas Islamist movement in March in a bid to stem factional fighting and ease a Western aid embargo imposed after Hamas won parliamentary elections last year.
But tensions between Hamas and Fatah remain high and the Western ban on direct aid to the Palestinian Authority remains, with donors demanding Hamas renounce violence and recognise Israel before they will deal with it.
The U.S. timeline calls on Abbas’s security forces by to form “joint coordinating cells” with Israeli and Egyptian forces by June 1 to bolster security at the Egyptian border.
By June 15, Abbas would deploy his forces along the border, from a key Israeli crossing point to the Mediterranean coast, to stop smuggling and destroy tunnels used by militants.
Under the U.S. timeline, Abbas’s national security adviser Mohammad Dahlan, a bitter foe of Hamas, would develop a plan to prevent rocket attacks against Israel and begin deployments by June 21.
The U.S. document asks Israel to allow the transfer of weapons, ammunition and other equipment for security forces under Abbas’s direct control in the West Bank and Gaza.
The timeline calls for stepped up training and equipping of Abbas’s forces until the end of this year.
Diplomats said U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was committed to the effort despite the hurdles, and that she hoped to draw up a blueprint, or “rubric”, that both sides would commit to, possibly in writing.
Washington hopes these measures will create conditions for talks on a final peace deal but Olmert, who has agreed to push forward with the benchmarks, is deeply unpopular in Israel and could be forced out of office over last year’s Lebanon war.