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Sponsors Quietly Unfold 'Road Map' for the Mideast

The peace plan backed by the U.S. and others would establish a state for Palestinians by 2005.

May 01, 2003|Henry Chu | Times Staff Writer

JERUSALEM — The long-awaited Middle East "road map" for peace was delivered to Israel and the Palestinians on Wednesday amid sober hopes that the U.S.-backed plan might finally resolve one of the world's most intractable conflicts.

The plan is a timetable for Israel to withdraw from the West Bank and end its settlements while Palestinians are to curb violence against Israel. It is designed to lead to a Palestinian state by 2005.

The proposal was presented by U.S. Ambassador Daniel C. Kurtzer to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in a deliberately quiet handover Wednesday afternoon at the prime minister's residence in Jerusalem.

"Everybody preferred it that way. They didn't want a circus," a U.S. official said.

Envoys from the United Nations, European Union and Russia, and another U.S. diplomat, delivered the document to new Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas in his office in the West Bank city of Ramallah.

"We are committed to what [is] in the road map," Abbas told reporters a couple hours before he received the plan. He called on Israel not to try to add amendments but to begin implementing it immediately. "We refuse to reopen the road map because if we do, we will never be able to close it again."

President Bush praised Abbas as a man who "understands that in order for the Palestinian lives to improve, terror must be battled

Answering reporters' questions later in the day, the president said that the road map was only the "beginning of a long process."

He called on Arab nations to play a more active role by cutting off funding to extremists and creating "the conditions" for peace.

Confronting violence is also on the Israelis' minds. A suicide bombing early Wednesday has forced Israel to confront how it will deal with Abbas and how much of a grace period to allow before demanding results from his fledgling government.

Israeli intelligence officials have recommended a period of restraint by Sharon to allow Abbas, who also goes by the name Abu Mazen, to establish himself and consolidate as much control as possible, Israeli radio reported Wednesday.

But divisions were already apparent in Israel in the bombing's aftermath between hard-liners and those officials counseling patience.

"It's too early to make any judgments," said legislator Yossi Sarid, a member of the Knesset security committee. "Abu Mazen is prime minister since [Tuesday]. We [ourselves] have been making special efforts in the 2 1/2 years since we occupied the territories and we haven't succeeded in stopping terror. You should give him a chance."

Dore Gold, an advisor to Sharon, declared that Abbas had already failed his first test.

"This new Palestinian government has stepped up to the plate and basically struck out," Gold said in a television interview.

The new government was ratified by Palestinian legislators only five hours before the blast in Tel Aviv, which killed four people including the bomber and shattered a fragile sense of calm among Israelis.

Israeli police said the bomber and an accomplice carried British passports. Britain's Foreign Office in London had no immediate comment.

The bomber was identified as Asif Mohammed Hanif. Police said he entered Israel from the fenced-in Gaza Strip.

The Bush administration deplored the bombing but said it looked forward to working with Abbas and would press on with the peace plan, which was drafted by the U.S., United Nations, European Union and Russia.

Abbas is already under pressure to start making good on his pledge to crack down on the "unauthorized possession of weapons" by Palestinians, meaning radical groups such as Hamas that support military operations. Disarming such militias is the toughest task facing Abbas, and doubters wonder whether he can achieve the goal.

An end to the violence is the very first piece of the new Middle East peace initiative. In return, Israel would be expected to start withdrawing from parts of the West Bank and easing restrictions that have made life difficult for hundreds of thousands of Palestinian civilians.

The second and third phases entail Palestinian elections, the establishment of provisional borders for an independent Palestine and statehood by 2005.

To rein in militant groups, Abbas will have to cajole and threaten a plethora of factions and splinter groups within the fractious Palestinian movement.

Their unruliness was in evidence Wednesday when responsibility for the Tel Aviv bombing was jointly claimed by Hamas and by the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, an offshoot of Abbas' own political faction, Fatah. Abbas and Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat are among Fatah's founding members, but they say that the murderous activities of the brigade lie outside their control.

Hamas and another extremist group, Islamic Jihad, have already declared their opposition to the Middle East road map and say they have no intention of stopping armed attacks against Israelis.

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