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Quartet's Mideast road map '99.5 percent' done

From Elise Labott

President Bush and Vice President Cheney meet with diplomats from the United Nations, European Union and Russia on Friday.
President Bush and Vice President Cheney meet with diplomats from the United Nations, European Union and Russia on Friday.

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Amid word that the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations are "very close" to agreeing on a plan for a comprehensive Israeli-Palestinian settlement, the four issued a statement Friday calling for "an immediate, comprehensive cease-fire" in the region.

Delegates from the four, known as the Middle East quartet, met Friday -- first at the State Department and then at the White House with President Bush -- to discuss a U.S.-sponsored "road map" that Bush described as "a way forward" after months of spiraling violence.

"It is more or less complete now," a senior quartet diplomat said after the State Department meeting. "We've agreed to 99.5 percent of the road map."

A recent draft of the road map is described as a "performance-based and goal-driven" plan. It details a two-step peace process. The first would require Palestinians to "immediately undertake an unconditional cessation of violence" and call for "supportive measures" by Israel.

The second step is described as a transition phase lasting from June to December of 2003. It would create an independent Palestinian state under the "consensus judgment of the quartet."

A final phase described as "permanent status agreement" is also detailed in the draft.

Bush addressed the call for a Palestinian state in his remarks following the meeting.

"I believe it's in everybody's best interest that there be two states living side by side in peace," Bush said, "and this government will work hard to achieve that."

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan also endorsed the road map.

"It will require sacrifices by both sides and parallel steps from both sides," Annan said.

The United States originally hoped to release the final plan at the quartet meeting but under pressure from Israel, decided to hold the plan until after Israeli parliamentary elections next month.

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher called the decision to delay the road map "just a recognition of the reality of decision making and the state of play in the government of Israel."

In a written statement, the quartet said that "based upon a common understanding on the content and goals of this process," it had "made substantial progress toward finalizing a road map for presentation to the parties in the near future."

Europeans want 'road map' released

EU leaders had pressed for the road map to be released Friday, arguing it is important to begin the process of building a Palestinian state.

"It's very important that the voters of Israel know what the world thinks about the situation," Danish Foreign Minister Per Stig Møller, speaking on behalf of the EU presidency, said earlier in the week. "Being an enlightened voter means that you also have the information on which to build your vote."

"The decision to delay the declaration until after the Israeli elections will result in a political vacuum and a policy of inaction," Palestinian Cabinet member Saeb Erakat said. "The road map should have been declared so that the Israelis can choose between peace based on a two-step solution or no peace with the continuation of the occupation."

When the Israeli elections are over, Boucher said Friday, "then, we will engage with all of the parties in the region with respect to the road map if we have complete agreement on the elements of the road map at least within the quartet at that time."

President Bush on Thursday telephoned Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and "reiterated his commitment to the principles" of Palestinian statehood as part of a comprehensive solution to the conflict, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said.

The principal delegates to the quartet meetings, in addition to Møller, are U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, EU Commissioner Chris Patten, and EU International Policy Chief Javier Solana.

In a speech last week to roll out a U.S. initiative for democracy and economic development in the Middle East, Powell said, "There's considerable debate with respect to Iraq. And I think that as the Iraq situation resolves itself one way or the other, that will be dealt with and hopefully we will see progress in the Middle East peace plan."

Report details U.S., U.K. differing visions

Israel Radio quoted U.S. officials Wednesday as saying differences between the United States and European Union on the peace plan include the following:

• The scope of the quartet's authority in the West Bank and Gaza to supervise implementation of the peace plan on the ground

• The EU's immediate demand for Israel to end construction of new Jewish settlements

The United States, while maintaining settlements are an obstacle to peace, has largely backed Israel's opposition to any new settlement freeze as long as Palestinian terror attacks continue

• The EU's demand to restrict Israel's targeted hits of Palestinian militants

The Bush administration backs Israel's policy.

The quartet talks in Washington are a follow-up to a meeting the group held last month in Jordan. That discussion took place after Assistant Secretary of State William Burns' visit to the Middle East in October. At that time, Burns presented the Israelis, Palestinians and key Arab allies with the Bush administration's outline for a provisional Palestinian state by the end of 2003 and a final status agreement by the end of 2005.

Since then, the U.S. State Department has been fine-tuning the road map based on feedback from the parties.

Elections at end of January

Israel's general elections are set for January 28. Israeli Prime Minister and Likud party leader Ariel Sharon and Labor Party candidate Amram Mitzna will face off for the post of prime minister.

Mitzna has promised to restart talks immediately with the Palestinians. If there is no progress in those talks after one year, Mitzna said he would enforce security borders in the West Bank. And, he said, no Jewish settlement would remain on the eastern side of those borders. Mitzna has said he would order a total Israeli evacuation from Gaza without delay.

Sharon takes a hard line on relations with the Palestinians, arguing that substantive negotiations are dependent on the Palestinian Authority reining in armed groups. He rejects Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat as a negotiating partner and strongly backs the existing government-sanctioned Jewish settlements in the Palestinian territories.

Most Israeli political pundits heavily favor Sharon to form the next government. Polls show his Likud party is expected to be victorious in the election.

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