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Arabs Feel Let Down by Powell

Disappointment rises over U.S. failure to get Israel to accept key elements of 'road map.'

May 13, 2003|Robin Wright | Times Staff Writer

AMMAN, Jordan — Secretary of State Colin L. Powell faced mounting disappointment and anger in the Arab world Monday over the United States' failure to win significant concessions from Israel on the new "road map" for Middle East peace.

In Cairo, Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher, visibly frustrated, demanded to know why Israel refused to publicly accept the ambitious blueprint to create a Palestinian state within three years.

" 'Accept' is not a difficult word to pronounce.... It is important for both sides to indicate at least their intention to implement what is in the road map. The word 'accept' is not a dirty word," Maher said at a joint news conference with Powell.

"It seems to me a little strange that if you are willing to do things, you are not ready to say that you are willing to do that," he added.

After he held talks with Israel and the Palestinians on Sunday, Powell's attempt to win support for the road map in the Arab world took him to Egypt and Jordan on Monday.

But his efforts began as Israel sealed off the Gaza Strip in a crackdown that further angered Arab officials -- particularly a day after Israel pledged to make humanitarian gestures to ease the plight of Palestinians facing dire economic times.

In an interview, Maher criticized Israel for putting up new obstacles while refusing to commit to the road map, which was designed last year by the United States, the United Nations, the European Union and Russia and was formally released last month.

"Israel wants the Palestinians and the rest of us to do something but refuses to commit itself. What kind of deal is that? We can't help the Palestinians surrender," he said.

Powell conceded Monday that "challenging times" lie ahead. At his news conference with Maher, he called the road map "a work in progress."

But he defended Israel in an interview in Cairo with Nile Television International and praised Prime Minister Ariel Sharon for a willingness to "begin moving." He characterized some of Israel's initial peace gestures as important and added that the steps would "never be enough for some people and for other people there are too many."

The steps included the release of about 180 of the more than 1,100 Palestinian detainees in Israel and a pledge to allow thousands of Palestinians in the West Bank to return to work in Israel, according to Israeli officials.

Palestinians and prominent Arab officials in both countries Powell visited Monday said they were disappointed with the limited steps.

A senior Israeli official said Powell had pressed Sharon to issue a statement endorsing the principle of the road map even if he expressed reservations. U.S. and Israeli officials were working on wording for possible use during a visit by Sharon to the White House next Tuesday, this official said.

Arab officials were already warning that if Sharon's White House visit does not result in significant moves by Israel, they will lose faith that the Bush administration intends to follow through on the road map.

"The Palestinians have put forward a new leadership, worked on a new constitution and begun reorganizing their security forces. It's about time that Sharon at least accepted the road map. Israel's excuses should not be accepted. No one is saying security shouldn't be addressed, but we need a framework to work from," said a ranking Arab official. "If the U.S. lets this moment go, then they're not serious," he said.

National security advisor Condoleezza Rice said Monday that President Bush does intend to elicit progress now that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein has been toppled.

"One of the really bad actors in the Middle East has just been deposed, and the president is not going to miss this opportunity. And that means he is going to press all of the parties to take on their responsibilities, to take them on in a serious way and to do what they can do for peace," Rice told Reuters news service

in an interview.

In the lead-up to the Washington talks, Israeli sources said, Sharon will meet with new Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas on Friday. Israeli and Palestinian security officials met over the weekend.

But in an attempt to bridge the wide gap between the parties, the Bush administration is temporarily putting aside specifics of the road map and focusing on tentative confidence-building steps.

"The road map is simply a way to carry out the president's June 24 vision," Rice told Reuters, referring to a speech by Bush last summer in which he laid out U.S. proposals to reach a final peace in the Mideast.

"We don't want to spend time negotiating the road map," she said.

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