U.S. plans assessment of Mideast peace moves

The United States will conduct confidential assessments of whether Israel and the Palestinians are meeting their peacemaking commitments and share the results privately with the parties, U.S. and Western officials said.

Israel has sought to keep the U.S. process of judging compliance with the long-stalled "road map" peace plan largely secret. Palestinians say they favor disclosure of judgments on whether Israel is halting all settlement activity and whether the Palestinians are curbing militants as the plan demands.

Though the Bush administration has decided to keep the assessment process confidential, it reserves the right to go public with its views if necessary, the officials said.

U.S. judgments will be critical because Israel has said it will not implement any peace deal until the Palestinians meet their commitments to combat militants in both the occupied West Bank and the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, where militants continue to fire cross-border rockets.

The monitoring process may also be a test of Washington's readiness to hold a key ally to its commitments. Despite U.S. and Palestinian pressure on Israel to freeze settlements, its construction ministry said on Sunday 740 new homes would be built on occupied land near Jerusalem next year.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas agreed at U.S.-sponsored conference in Annapolis, Maryland last month to relaunch final-status peace talks with the goal of reaching a statehood agreement by the end of 2008.

They also agreed Washington -- rather than the broader Quartet of Middle East mediators -- would "monitor and judge" Israeli and Palestinian compliance with the 2003 road map.

Though Israel supports U.S. oversight, it has sent mixed messages about whether it would treat the findings as binding.

"We will conduct this process in confidence," a senior U.S. official said of the judging program, adding that "our purpose will be to encourage progress, not to chastise" the parties.

The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Washington will share the assessment results "with the parties, probably bilaterally, but perhaps in other formats as well".

"We reserve the option to be public if need arises," the official added.

Officials said the newly appointed U.S. envoy for Middle East security, James Jones, will not serve as the direct "judge" of whether the parties are complying with their commitments.

Rather than publicly name a judge, American diplomats in the region working with the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv and Consulate in Jerusalem will send confidential assessments and recommendations to the State Department in Washington.

Decisions on whether to issue the parties passing, failing and warning marks will ultimately rest with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice or President George W. Bush, officials said.

A senior official said final judgments "will come from the U.S. government as an institution, not an individual".

Some former and current officials questioned the effectiveness of monitoring conducted largely in secret.

"Not conducting diplomacy in the glare of the public is often a good way to go," said former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State John Wolf, who served for seven months as chief U.S. monitor of the "road map" after its launch in 2003.

"But if it is done in secret, and if it stays secret, it gives people the opportunity to question our even-handedness," said Wolf, whose own assessments as monitor were kept secret.

Senior Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said U.S. judgments should not be hidden because "the whole point of it is to tell the world who is implementing and who is not".

A Western diplomat said of plans to maintain secrecy: "Both sides don't want to be publicly blamed for their shortcomings."

Another diplomat said: "Hush hush means no effectiveness". ( Reuters )

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