Arab Foreign Ministers Back U.S. Statehood Plan

Despite differences with the United States over the future of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, key Arab ministers are strongly supporting a comprehensive plan to achieve Palestinian statehood within three years. 

Foreign ministers Ahmed Maher of Egypt and Marwan Muasher of Jordan gave strong backing Tuesday to a three-track plan supported by the United States, the United Nations, the European Union and Russia to move from violence to peace in the Middle East. 

"Maybe we do not agree on all the details, but we are determined to work together for peace and I think we will succeed to bring peace to this area under the banner of legitimacy, democracy and prosperity for all," Maher said. 

Muasher said the two Arab ministers, Saudi Arabia's U.N. Ambassador Fawzi Shobokshi, and top U.S., U.N., EU and Russian officials had made "good progress" on a plan to move toward the end of Israel's occupation and achieving the vision of two states, Palestine and Israel, living side by side in peace. 

The three Arab representatives joined U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and Secretary of State Colin Powell at a news conference in the garden of Annan's residence after the meeting. 

Earlier Tuesday, Powell, Annan, EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana and Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov strongly supported President Bush's goal of a final Israeli-Palestinian settlement within three years. 

The Bush administration, which is shunning Arafat, remains at odds with the Arabs, the Europeans and the United Nations who all recognize him as the elected Palestinian leader. 

The United States also remains at odds with the Arabs and the others on the priorities for tackling the three tracks for peace — security, humanitarian assistance and economic development, and a political settlement. Powell stressed that ending violence must take precedence over other goals. 

Nonetheless, Jordan's Muasher said, "I think we are very encouraged by the fact that not only did we see a commitment today to the end game, and to a time frame of three years, but we also saw a commitment to developing a work plan that would take us through a series of stages — going through Palestinian reform and security definitely, but also starting a political process to give hope for Palestinians that they will witness the end of the occupation." 

The international community must now agree on benchmarks to monitor progress to ensure that the political visions are translated into "a workable plan of action," he said. "And after the meetings today I'm encouraged that we are well on our way to do that." 

"In our opinion, the Israelis have not lived up to their obligations," Egypt's Maher said. "We hope they will do that. The Palestinians have obligations, and I'm sure they will abide by these obligations. We are willing to help both sides to abide by their obligations in order to achieve peace."