JERUSALEM, (Reuters) – A U.S. general on Friday held the first Israeli-Palestinian meeting to assess compliance with the “road map” peace plan but Israel’s defence minister, under U.S. pressure over settlement building, did not attend.
Peace talks launched at a conference in Annapolis, Maryland in November have been bogged down by tensions over building within Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank and an upsurge in violence between the two sides.
Israel was bracing for strong U.S. criticism for not living up to its commitments under the long-stalled “road map”. It announced plans earlier this week to push forward with building hundreds of new homes in a settlement north of Jerusalem.
The road map calls on the Jewish state to remove outposts built without government authorisation in the West Bank and to halt all settlement activity in the territory.
The 2003 plan also demands that the Palestinians crack down on militants.
Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad attended the trilateral meeting in a Jerusalem hotel with General William Fraser, who was appointed by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to oversee the road map’s implementation.
Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak sent in his place a senior defence ministry strategist, Amos Gilad, whose portfolio covers many of the issues Fraser was expected to raise.
Barak’s decision not to attend took some U.S. and Palestinian officials by surprise and could prove embarrassing. “The stress is on practical talks … with the aim of moving forward the peace process,” Gilad said before the two-hour session. “All rumours about tensions are baseless.”
The peace talks were suspended earlier this month by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas over an Israeli offensive in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip in which more than 120 Palestinians, many of them civilians, were killed.
Israel said it was targeting militants behind cross-border rocket attacks from Gaza, which Hamas seized in June after routing Abbas’s more secular Fatah forces.
Western diplomats said the peace talks would formally resume next week.
Friday’s closed-door meeting with Fraser was the first since the Annapolis conference relaunched peace talks with the goal of trying to reach a statehood agreement before U.S. President George W. Bush leaves office next January.
Fraser has submitted his first confidential report on road map implementation to Rice. The contents have been kept secret.
U.S. officials said ahead of Friday’s meeting that Washington was not satisfied with the pace at which Israel was moving to implement the road map. “The United States considers the expansion of settlement activity to be not consistent with Israeli obligations under the road map and we have made that very clear. I have also said that it is certainly not helpful for the peace process,” Rice told U.S. lawmakers on Wednesday.
Israel has likewise failed to uproot the unauthorised outposts in the West Bank.
U.S. officials said Washington believed the Palestinians needed to do more to meet their own obligations to boost security and rein in militants in the West Bank, though U.S. officials have privately complained to Israel that its frequent raids were undermining those efforts.