The US has poured cold water on EU plans to reveal the new 'road map for peace' before the Israeli elections, and refused in advance of a meeting to be held in Washington on 20 December to officially adopt the initiative.
The EU had hoped to launch the peace plan, which paves the way for the creation of a Palestinian state by 2005, at the Washington meeting, where mediators from the so-called Quartet - the UN, US, EU and Russia - are due to discuss the Middle East. However, the US has said that the road map should not be disclosed until after Israel's voters have gone to the polls on 28 January.
'We think it would be wiser in this instance for us to continue work on the road map and wait until after the Israeli election is over,' US Secretary of State Colin Powell announced on 18 December after a meeting with EU foreign affairs ministers in Washington. 'It is just a matter of weeks until that is resolved and then we will engage with all the parties.'
The EU has argued that the plan should be made public sooner, so that Israeli citizens can make an informed choice when casting their votes. 'It is very important, in the EU's opinion, that the voters of Israel know what the world thinks about the situation,' says Per Stig Moeller, Foreign Affairs Minister of Denmark, which holds the chair in the EU's rotating presidency. 'Being an enlightened voter means that you have the information on which you build you vote.'
However, little attention has been paid to the road map issue in recent weeks in Israel, where the electorate is gripped by a votes-for-cash scandal in the ruling Likud party. Two members of its central committee have been arrested over allegations that party members bought places on the Likud list of election candidates. Party leader Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has been forced to publicly deny that there was any wrongdoing over the selection of his son Omri as a candidate.
The vote-buying revelations are having a dramatic impact on Likud's lead in opinion polls. Recent statistics have shown that 15 per cent of the party's voters are now less likely to back Likud in the elections. Until now the party has been the out-and-out favourite to win the elections, as the Israeli electorate has moved increasingly further to the right during the two-year intifada. The Likud campaign has played heavily on Israelis' security fears and the party has pushed ahead with the erection of a giant fence stretching round the perimeter of the West Bank.
Settlement building has continued with renewed vigour under Likud, and Sharon has pledged to build a Jewish-controlled corridor through the West Bank city of Hebron, where 12 Israelis were killed in a Palestinian ambush in November. Unusually, the Israeli government took the step of dismantling a Jewish settler outpost on the edge of Hebron on 19 December, on the grounds that it had been illegally built on private Palestinian land.
The Palestinian leadership will want to address the issue of settlements in talks with UK Prime Minister Tony Blair due to be held in London in January. Blair has invited leading members of Palestinian 'civil society' to Downing Street to discuss measures to strengthen the political and security structures of the Palestinian Authority. Palestinian officials have welcomed Blair's invitation, intended to complement the efforts of the Quartet, but have said that they do not want the agenda to deal exclusively with issues of reform.