- The Washington Times - Friday, October 25, 2002

JERICHO, West Bank Palestinians must take decisive action against militants and get serious about internal reform if they want to embark on the road to statehood, as outlined in a new Mideast peace plan, a U.S. envoy told senior Palestinian officials yesterday.

"It is only through decisive action to end terror and violence, and decisive action to reform in preparation for Palestinian statehood, that we are going to be able to move ahead on a practical pathway to end occupation and this terrible conflict," Assistant Secretary of State William Burns said after meeting with Palestinian officials in the West Bank town of Jericho.

The three-phase peace plan, referred to as a "road map" to Palestinian statehood, envisions a gradual Israeli troop pullback in the coming months to positions held before the outbreak of fighting two years ago. It also calls for Palestinian elections by May 2003, followed by a provisional Palestinian state by the end of that year and a final peace deal and full Palestinian independence by 2005.

Palestinian Cabinet Minister Saeb Erekat noted that the plan only refers to parliamentary and not to presidential elections an apparent attempt to circumvent Yasser Arafat.

"This is interference in our internal affairs which is not acceptable," Mr. Erekat told reporters after meeting with Mr. Burns.

The United States and Israel hope to sideline the Palestinian leader, whom they consider an obstacle to a peace deal. Mr. Burns is not meeting with Mr. Arafat, in line with a U.S. boycott of the Palestinian leader. Mr. Arafat's popularity has plummeted but if elections are held he is widely expected to be re-elected as Palestinian Authority president.

The peace plan also calls for naming a prime minister, who would take over the day-to-day affairs of government. Mr. Arafat opposes the idea.

Mr. Burns also held separate talks with Hani al-Hassan, expected to be named by Mr. Arafat in the coming days as interior minister. In the job, Mr. Hassan will be asked to oversee the restructuring of the Palestinian security services a key element of the reforms sought by the United States.

Earlier yesterday, Mr. Burns met with Israeli Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, who said the new plan did not address all of Israel's security concerns.

"The defense minister emphasized the need to strengthen the security element in the road map because without security there can be no progress," said a statement by Mr. Ben-Eliezer. "Israel reserves the right to self-defense and will not accept any constraints by this or any other road map."

Meanwhile, an Israeli Arab army officer was indicted yesterday on charges of spying for the Lebanese Hezbollah guerrillas, raising fresh concerns about the loyalty of Israel's minority Arab community.

Lt. Col. Omar el-Heib, a Bedouin from the village of Beit Zarzir in northern Israel, is the highest-ranking army officer from the Bedouin community. He was charged with trading military secrets for drugs and money with one of Israel's bitterest enemies. Ten suspected accomplices were indicted with him, including four members of another Bedouin clan, three of whom served in the military.

They were arrested in September, but an Israeli court clamped a gag order on the case in the first stage of the investigation.

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