WASHINGTON – Palestinians are pleased by the Bush administration's (search) level of commitment to peace, a senior Palestinian minister said Wednesday, but they want assurances that the United States will intervene if the process collapses.
Planning Minister Nabil Qassis and two other members of Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas' (search) Cabinet are meeting this week with members of Congress and Bush administration officials to discuss the Bush administration's "road map" plan to end the Mideast conflict.
Qassis said Palestinians welcomed the Bush administration's recent high-profile attention to the road map, including Bush's visit to the region last month and visits by national security adviser Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of State Colin Powell.
"These are all important signs we see of serious engagement," Qassis told reporters.
A crucial element, Qassis said, is how committed the United States would be to monitoring implementation.
"Monitoring is not just looking, but putting in benchmarks ... intervening, if necessary," he said. "We believe that this is what is needed to meet targets and keep the process alive."
Qassis didn't elaborate on "intervention," but Bush has until recently resisted the hands-on cajoling that characterized former President Clinton's approach to Mideast peacemaking and has not shown the same willingness his father did to use economic pressure to prod the Israelis.
Qassis was worried that Israel would roll back on its commitment to reduce its military presence in the West Bank (search), to stop the practice of detention without charges and to end settlement activity in disputed areas.
Israel for its part wants the Palestinian Authority (search) to show greater toughness in dealing with militant Islamists, responsible for some of the worst terror attacks on Israeli civilians. Abbas has negotiated a temporary cease-fire with the Islamists, but Israel's reception has been lukewarm at best.
Qassis said it was the best way out.
"Some don't believe we are dealing with Hamas and Islamic Jihad without blood in the street," Qassis said. "We see an opportunity to consolidate a lasting cease-fire."
Qassis said greater engagement with the United States was a priority, especially ahead of a request for aid from donor nations he said could reach $1 billion. He and his two colleagues -- Labor Minister Ghassan Al-Khatib and Culture Minister Ziad Abu Amr -- met with some of the Palestinians' toughest critics in Congress, including the top Democrat on the House International Relations Committee, Rep. Tom Lantos of California.
Qassis's spokeswoman said he is also meeting with U.S. Assistant Secretary of State William Burns on Thursday.
The Abbas visit is a display of independence by the prime minister from Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, whom the United States considers persona non grata. Qassis was in Washington under the aegis of the Palestinian Business Committee for Peace and Reform, an outspoken critic of the autocracy that once characterized Arafat's rule.
Qassis nonetheless distanced himself from some of the "unkind words" about Arafat he heard some U.S. officials express. "He is the elected president," he said. "The reforms couldn't have happened if the president opposed them."
Abbas and Arafat have wrangled over sharing power. The United States hopes Abbas will moderate some Palestinian stances and steer the Palestinians away from Arafat's militancy.