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Sharon, Abbas Agree to Take Initial Steps Toward Peace

Israeli leader agrees to remove some settlement outposts; Palestinian chief vows to try to end violence. But on the ground, critics abound.

June 05, 2003|Robin Wright and Maura Reynolds | Times Staff Writers

AQABA, Jordan -- President Bush ended his first Mideast summit Wednesday by coaxing Israeli and Palestinian leaders into taking new, small steps along what he hopes will become a road to peace.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon agreed to dismantle some settlement outposts, built since March 2001 in the West Bank, and Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas pledged "full efforts" to end 32 months of violence against Israel.

"The Holy Land must be shared between the state of Palestine and the state of Israel, living in peace with one another and with every nation of the Middle East," the president said at the summit's closing ceremony.

"The journey we're taking is difficult, but there is no other choice. No leader of conscience can accept more months and years of humiliation, killing and mourning," Bush said.

"If all sides can fulfill their obligations, I know that peace can finally come."

The agreement followed about five hours of mediation by Bush at a royal palace overlooking this scenic Red Sea port. In statements after the talks, Bush said implementing the "road map," designed by the United States, United Nations, European Union and Russia, is now a "matter of the highest priority."

Despite the glowing words, questions continued over whether the sides would be able to take concrete steps toward peace, and whether each side would consider the other's gestures adequate.

The Palestinians pledged to end what Israel calls terrorist attacks, but within minutes of the leaders' remarks, two militant Islamic movements, Hamas and Islamic Jihad, said they would not disarm.

"We will never be ready to lay down arms until the liberation of the last centimeter of the land of Palestine," Hamas spokesman Abdulaziz Rantisi said in the Gaza Strip.

The groups, however, did not rule out discussing security issues with Abbas.

Sharon's immediate pledge to dismantle about a dozen settlement outposts brought sharp protests from Israel's settler movement. Tens of thousands took to the streets in Jerusalem to protest Sharon's promise.

"On the back of Israel, [Bush] is giving a big prize to terrorists," said Eli Cohen, a Likud lawmaker. "They get a state for what? All the terrorists around the world are smiling, saying, 'Oh, it works.' "

Sharon's vow will have no impact on the approximately 150 settlements built in the West Bank and Gaza with the blessing and financial backing of the Israeli government. Their fate will be discussed later in the peace process.

Sharon's pledge involves about 70 outposts established in the past two years. They are usually trailers or makeshift buildings on hilltops near the settlements and are considered "unauthorized" by the Israeli government. The Israeli leader did not say how many of them would be closed, although Israeli press reports said the government would begin with about a dozen.

There is concern that some ultranationalists might resist any evacuation with violence.

Amid a rise in threats against Sharon, security has reportedly been tightened. An ultranationalist in 1995 assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who signed the Oslo peace accords.

American presidents including Nixon, Carter, Reagan and Clinton have all pushed peace plans. The most famous was the 1993 Oslo accords that gave Palestinians full or partial autonomy over large portions of the West Bank and Gaza, captured by Israel during the 1967 Middle East War. But disagreements and continuing violence have prevented any final settlement of key issues, such as the settlements or the role of Jerusalem .

By agreeing to dismantle the outposts, Sharon took a first step, but enough of a step to anger his supporters, raising questions as to whether he could go further.

The U.S. is prepared to help, Bush said. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and national security advisor Condoleezza Rice will begin working closely with the parties to achieve "true peace as quickly as possible," Bush said. The United States will also soon put a coordinating committee, led by veteran U.S. diplomat and arms expert John Wolf, in the region to monitor the situation.

The Aqaba summit was Bush's first major foray into trying to bring peace to the Middle East, and he seemed to relish the challenge.

Bush first met separately with Abbas, then Sharon, and finally the three talked together. The Palestinian and Israeli leaders did not shake hands when they entered the talks but did after the three leaders and their host, King Abdullah II of Jordan, read final statements to assembled delegations.

Bush said observers should not read any significance into the initial failure to clasp hands -- "How do you shake hands with three people?" he told reporters later.

Abbas, in power only five weeks, said his new government accepts "without reservation" the peace plan unveiled April 29, the day his selection was confirmed by the Palestinian legislature.

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