- The Washington Times - Friday, March 14, 2003

Israeli and Palestinian leaders Friday each were cautious in their responses to U.S. President George Bush's announcement earlier in the day that he was committed and stood ready to implement a resolution to the Middle East conflict dubbed the roadmap to peace.

The Palestine Liberation Organization's executive committee officially welcomed Bush's statements, though the speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council, Ahmed Qurea, told reporters they were "constructive and positive if they are fully implemented."

Qurea elaborated to United Press International: "These statements would be constructive if it can stop the Israeli aggression and all its types of assassinations, incursions, destruction of houses and arrests and stops settlements activities as well."

He also said the Palestinians hope that Bush's statements would bring back trust between the Israelis and the Palestinians that had been badly affected during more than two years of ongoing violence.

The roadmap calls for reciprocating steps of target dates and benchmarks to address Israeli concerns for security and Palestinian goals for an independent state. Its first phase requires the cessation of both Palestinian terrorism and the building of Israeli settlements in predominantly Palestinian areas, for example.

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat spoke by telephone with British Prime Minister Tony Blair about the roadmap, Palestinian officials said. Britain has worked in recent months to facilitate security and political reforms within the Palestinian Authority.

For their part, Israeli government officials declared Friday they see eye-to-eye with Bush's plan for a settlement with the Palestinians, but the Palestinians must take the first step.

"First there must be a Palestinian prime minister with full authority (who must) fight … and put an end … to terror, and then Israel will be ready to discuss a road map," the Foreign Ministry's spokesman Ron Prosor told UPI.

Prosor stressed Israeli readiness to discuss "a" road map, clearly careful not to suggest acceptance of "the" roadmap. Israel has many reservations about the roadmap that the United States has been drafting with the European Union, the United Nations and Russia, known as the Quartet.

In his announcement in the White House Rose Garden Friday, Bush said that to be a "credible and responsible partner, the new Palestinian prime minister must hold a position of real authority. We expect that such a Palestinian prime minister will be confirmed soon."

In comments of his own from London just over an hour after those of Bush, Britain's Blair struck a similar note: "Now we have a Palestinian prime minister. When he takes up office the roadmap to peace will be published," he said.

Arafat bowed to Western pressure earlier this month to implement a key reform — to set up and next to fill the office of prime minister of the Palestinian Authority. The Quartet wants Arafat to loosen his grip on power, a concession he has long resisted.

Palestinian Authority Cabinet Minister Saeb Erekat declared, "The Palestinian leadership had already fulfilled and is waiting for the immediate implementation of the roadmap peace plan."

Arafat's candidate for the prime minister post is Mahmoud Abbas, better known as Abu Mazen. But while the Palestinian legislature and central councils have approved the position, Abu Mazen — the Palestinian architect of the 1993 Oslo peace accords and well regarded in the West — has made no public comment regarding his nomination. Palestinian sources have said nevertheless that the Palestinian Legislative Council is set to approve his nomination Monday and he would form his government some 48 hours later.

Although Bush did not refer to Arafat or Abu Mazen by name, some analysts interpreted his comments about a prime minister as suggesting the West is looking for a new face on the Palestinian side of the negotiating table. Arafat has said he will handle relations with Israel and other aspects of foreign policy, however, so the outcome of such efforts is as yet unclear.

An Israeli official who spoke on condition of anonymity, noted Tel Aviv has said it would make "painful concessions for peace," but added these have to be negotiated.

"The settlement issue is one of the issues to be negotiated only if and when the (Palestinian) prime minister shows a real change of action on the ground," the official stressed.

Former Minister Dan Meridor, who has worked on Israel's reaction to the roadmap until Sharon formed a new government, told UPI that Israel has an interest in advancing toward the establishment of a Palestinian state, in temporary borders, providing the new Palestinian prime minister controls the arms on his side.

"If they don't control the weapons, negotiations would be insignificant," Meridor asserted.

"They must be … the only ones who maintain power" to avoid a situation in which Israel withdraws from Palestinian towns only to find Hamas and other militants, who oppose an agreement, continue fighting, he maintained.

Opposition leader Amram Mitzna, of the dovish Labor Party, urged the Israeli government to accept the roadmap, "as a basis for a political plan," he said. "Sharon must not become a serial opportunity-loser."

He added: "Political negotiations are the only way to stop the cycle of violence … The roadmap and Abu Mazen's election must not be greeted with Sharon's traditional 'no.'"

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(Saud Abu Ramadan reported from Gaza and Joshua Brilliant from Tel Aviv, Israel.)

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