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Sharon Likely to Press for Plan Changes

A U.S. concession to 'recognize' concerns with the peace proposal gives Israel some leeway. A three-way summit is possible in June.

May 24, 2003|Rebecca Trounson, Robin Wright and Megan K. Stack | Times Staff Writers

JERUSALEM — Despite the Bush administration's insistence that a U.S.-backed peace plan is not open to renegotiation, a deal struck to win Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's acceptance of the proposal virtually guarantees that Israel will be able to press for modifications on a range of important issues before the creation of a Palestinian state, U.S. and Israeli officials said Friday.

After weeks of resisting American appeals, Sharon announced Friday that Israel is prepared to accept the "road map" to peace. But the U.S. agreed in turn to "recognize" a written list of at least 10 Israeli reservations about the plan, American officials said.

Sharon will put the plan before his Cabinet as early as Sunday. Washington expects the decision, if approved, to pave the way for a summit among President Bush, Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas and the Israeli leader in the first week of June.

Bush heralded Israel's announcement as important progress. He said a U.S. pledge Friday to address "fully and seriously" Israel's concerns about the three-phase plan would allow implementation to begin.

Sharon "accepted it because I assured him that the United States is committed to Israel's security, and that since we're committed to Israel's security, as we move forward we will address any concerns that might arise regarding Israel's security," Bush said during a news conference at his Texas ranch.

Bush also said he would "strongly consider" the three-way summit, which is expected to take place at the Egyptian resort of Sharm el Sheik. The president acknowledged that achieving peace would not be easy but expressed confidence that he could make headway.

"I understand it's going to be difficult to achieve peace, but I believe it can happen," he said. "I'm committed to working toward peace in the Middle East."

Since the plan was announced more than three weeks ago, the process has deadlocked over the issue of how to stop 32 months of violence. Israel insisted that the Palestinians rein in militant groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad before it moved forward on its own obligations under the plan, even though the blueprint calls for the steps to be taken in parallel.

To break the impasse, U.S. officials concede, they compromised in meetings this week in Washington between Sharon envoy Dov Weisglass and U.S. national security advisor Condoleezza Rice.

"Either we or the Israelis had to budge. It came to the point that if we didn't budge, there would be no agreement. And in the end we budged," said a well-placed U.S. official.

"We may not change the road map text. But when the Israelis see something they don't like, we may end up giving them a pass," said the official, who requested anonymity.

State Department officials said Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, however, objected to two of the issues on Israel's list of concerns. The first was the Israeli demand that the Palestinians renounce the right of return now, rather than wait until later in the discussions. The other was Israeli's request for deletion of references to a recent Saudi Arabian initiative outlining terms for the wider Arab world's recognition of the Jewish state.

Unveiled by the Bush administration on April 30, the plan calls for a series of reciprocal steps leading to Palestinian statehood by the target date of 2005 and the parallel creation of a secure, peaceful environment for Israel. The U.S., United Nations, European Union and Russia are sponsors of the plan and had urged Israel to accept it.

U.S. officials had said repeatedly that they wanted the Israeli and Palestinian governments to accept the plan in principle without getting bogged down in debating its specifics.

The question that remains after Sharon's announcement Friday is how much flexibility any party to the plan will have to demand substantive changes. Although both sides have objections, the Palestinians, under U.S. pressure, endorsed the peace plan two weeks ago.

On Friday, the new Palestinian government welcomed Israel's announcement, calling it a "positive step." But Information Minister Nabil Amr also said the Palestinians were counting on American assurances that no amendments would be made to the plan.

On that score, Powell said in Paris that the proposal is not subject to change.

But the U.S. has given Israel a "letter or an assurance" that the question of refugees will arise earlier in the process than originally stated, at the same time the two sides begin to hash out specifics surrounding creation of a Palestinian state, said Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Jonathan Peled.

Palestinians have insisted that those who became refugees when Israel was created in 1948 should have the right to reclaim the land they lost.

Israel also asked that it not be required to produce tangible results -- turning over land to Palestinians, for example -- without a monitoring system in place to verify that the Palestinians are taking required steps to fight terrorism.

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