Russia, Allies Discuss Mideast Peace Timetable

WASHINGTON -- Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov joined with U.S. President George W. Bush and envoys from Europe and the United Nations in a new call Friday for the creation of a Palestinian state in three years. But the so-called Quartet of Middle East mediators remained divided over how quickly to press their plan for such a state on Israel and the Palestinians.

European leaders and other drafters want the three-year timetable to be formally adopted and published now. The Europeans, including those who support Bush on Iraq, are openly worried that without a vigorous Middle East peace negotiation under way, a war to oust Saddam Hussein in Baghdad could spread turmoil throughout the Arab world.

The United States wants to put off adoption at least until after the Israeli elections at the end of January. American officials fear that publishing it now will make it a target of attacks by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and other Israeli politicians.

Bush, who is under pressure from Britain and others to get more involved in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, gave what aides said was his clearest statement of support for the seven-page timetable of reciprocal steps, known as a "road map."

Yet, at the White House meeting Friday with Ivanov and other partners in the process of drafting the timetable, Bush firmly declined to go along with their wish that the plan be published immediately.

"The road map is not complete yet, but the United States is committed to its completion," Bush said. "We are committed to its implementation in the name of peace."

After the meeting on Friday, Ivanov and the other guests said they were satisfied with Bush's comments. The important thing, they said, was to get the president's endorsement of the timetable.

Kofi Annan, the UN secretary-general, said he was "very pleased" to hear the president's "strong support."

Another envoy, Per Stig Moeller, the foreign minister of Denmark, who is acting as foreign minister of the European Union, was more circumspect. "I'm not discouraged about the meeting today," he said. But he added that it was "very encouraging" that the president supported the drafting process.

The peace plan consists of three phases of reciprocal steps by Palestinians and Israelis to take place over three years. For the Palestinians, the early steps involve actions to stop terrorist attacks and to carry out various reforms in their government.

Israel would be expected to pull back troops from Palestinian areas, ease the conditions of Palestinians living in those areas and end "settlement activity" in what the plan calls "occupied" territory.

Sharon has endorsed the peace plan in principle, despite his overriding concern that it does not address the fate of Palestinian President Yasser Arafat. But he has criticized many of its elements and called on the United States not to adopt the plan until after the Israeli elections. The United States has gone along with that request, but only recently did anyone acknowledge it.

Earlier in the week, in response to Israeli requests, the U.S. administration adopted language in the plan saying that the goal of a Palestinian state could be achieved only when the Palestinians have a leadership "uncompromised by terror."

The administration also added language diminishing the sovereignty of the Palestinian state by saying that it would have "certain attributes" of sovereignty when initially created. It also said that there would be a freeze on Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza "following a comprehensive cease-fire."

These changes were accepted by Ivanov, Annan and the European Union in their meetings on Friday with U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, Bush administration officials said. The U.S. officials said this meant that virtually all the timetable drafting was now complete.

A senior American official involved in the negotiations said Friday evening that the most important development on Friday was that Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney sat in a room with Annan and others and endorsed the timetable document.

"The important thing is that the Quartet is speaking with one voice," he said.