U.S. assesses Israeli and Palestinian peace shortfalls

( Reuter )- A U.S. general on Friday gave his first assessment of where Israel and the Palestinians were failing to meet their peace commitments but Israel's defense minister did not attend, irking the Palestinians.

U.S.-backed peace talks launched at a conference in Annapolis, Maryland in November have been bogged down by tensions over Jewish settlement growth in the occupied West Bank, Israel's reluctance to remove checkpoints and an upsurge in violence between the two sides.

Friday's talks were attended by Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad but Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak surprised some U.S. and Palestinian officials by sending senior ministry strategist Amos Gilad to the meeting, chaired by U.S. General William Fraser.

Israel was bracing for strong U.S. criticism for not meeting its commitments under the long-stalled "road map" peace plan. It announced plans this week to build hundreds of new homes in a settlement north of Jerusalem, and Israel has rebuffed U.S. pressure to ease travel restrictions for Palestinians and curb the number of West Bank raids.

The road map calls on the Jewish state to remove outposts built without government authorization in the West Bank and to halt all settlement activity in the territory. It demands that the Palestinians crack down on militants.

An Israeli official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Barak's absence reflected his skepticism about peace negotiations he once described as a "fantasy".

"He didn't feel like going to a meeting and getting scolded," the official said. Some diplomats have taken to calling his representative Gilad "Dr. No". "He always says no," one of them explained.

An aide to Fayyad said: "The absence of Barak in today's meeting showed a lack of seriousness in dealing with the issues in question."

Gilad said "rumors about tensions are baseless".

"We examined areas where the parties are not meeting their commitments and the reasons why, and explored ways to accelerate the process," the U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem said after the two-hour meeting between the three men.

Fayyad expressed frustration: " Israel is eroding the very possibility of the two-state solution. A freeze on settlement activity is crucial to preserving the possibility of a Palestinian state. And by freeze, I mean not one more brick."

Appointed by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to oversee implementation of the road map, Fraser has made no public statements about his secret assessment, described by sources as critical of Israel.

"Our goal remains the fulfillment of the parties' road map obligations," the U.S. Consulate said.

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 who fire cross-border rockets from Gaza, which Hamas seized in June after routing Abbas's more secular Fatah forces.

The peace talks are expected to 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.

In addition to pressuring Israel, Washington believes the Palestinians need to do far more to rein in militants, though U.S. officials have privately complained to Israel that its frequent raids in the West Bank were undermining those efforts.

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