- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 1, 2003

TEL AVIV The United States released its long-awaited Middle East peace plan yesterday, hours after Mahmoud Abbas was sworn in as Palestinian prime minister and a suicide bomber from his party killed three bystanders in Tel Aviv.
The "road map" peace initiative was delivered to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon at his Jerusalem residence by U.S. Ambassador Daniel Kurtzer yesterday afternoon.
Less than two hours later, in Ramallah, Mr. Abbas received copies of the plan from representatives of the peace Quartet the United States, the United Nations, Russia and the European Union.
The phased plan, which is the Bush administration's biggest push yet to rein in more than 2 years of violence in the Middle East, aims at restarting peace negotiations with the goal of reaching a final settlement in three years.
The first stage of the initiative calls on both sides to take simultaneous confidence-building measures to help bring an end to the fighting.
"The road map represents a starting point toward achieving the vision of two states," President Bush said in a written statement.
"An opportunity now exists to move forward. The United States will do all it can to seize this opportunity."
He said the burden for achieving peace in the Middle East rests with both sides.
"Implementing the road map will depend upon the good faith efforts and contributions of both sides," the president said. "The pace of progress will depend strictly on the performance of the parties."
The blueprint's release comes at a time of growing U.S. influence in the region after the ouster of Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq.
It also comes with the rise of Mr. Abbas, a new face in the Palestinian leadership, who has pledged to crack down on militants and end attacks against Israelis.
Secretary of State Colin L. Powell was to leave for the Middle East last night. Before flying out, he discussed the plan with Mr. Sharon and Mr. Abbas via phone calls.
Underlining the challenges faced by the road map, Hamas, a militant Islamist group, and Tanzim, an armed offshoot of the political party Fatah, took joint responsibility for the suicide bombing at a seaside pub early yesterday morning. Mr. Abbas is a member of Fatah.
"The road map is a plan to liquidate the Palestinian cause. … It is rejected by us," Hamas founder Sheik Ahmed Yassin told Reuters news agency.
In the region, Arabs reacted to the release of the peace plan with skepticism, calling it a political move that favors Israel and U.S. postwar interests.
"The road map is for Israel's benefit, to ensure security and peace for the Jews, not the Palestinians," said Abu-Taha, a resident of a camp in Amman, Jordan, for Palestinian refugees.
Many refugees say the plan falls short of guaranteeing their return.
"The road map will not take me back to my country," said Ahmad Zaatar, a Palestinian truck driver living at a camp in southern Lebanon.
Israeli security officials identified the bomber as Asif Mohammed Hanif, 21, the holder of a British passport who had entered Israel via the Gaza Strip.
Another would-be suicide attacker, identified as Omar Khan Sharif, 27, also a British citizen, fled the scene after his bomb failed to detonate.
Israel published their pictures and called for public assistance in the manhunt to locate Sharif.
Both Israeli and Palestinian officials said they welcomed the release of the road map.
An Israeli diplomatic source said the peace initiative is regarded as "an important tool to implement Bush's vision, which we welcome. We hope that [Mr. Abbas] will use his new position to fight terrorism and create a situation in which moving ahead with negotiations is possible."
At the same time, Israel has made it known to the United States that there are elements of the plan it would like to see changed. Israel prefers to make the confidence-building steps conditional upon one another, rather than perform them in parallel.
According to an earlier draft of the road map, Israel would be expected to remove dozens of outposts of Jewish settlers in the West Bank and Gaza, withdraw from Palestinian territories and refrain from demolishing Palestinian houses, while Palestinians reform their security forces, collect weapons and rein in militants.
Hard-line members of Mr. Sharon's coalition as well as members of his Likud Party oppose the plan.
Ezra Rosenfeld, a spokesman for the Settlers Council of Judea Samaria and the Gaza Strip, has called the initiative "a road to hell" that would endanger Israel's security.
Palestinian officials are calling on the United States to resist Israeli calls for changes to the initiative.
"The key to its implementation is to develop a monitoring mechanism by the Quartet so the obligations of each side are very clear-cut," said Palestinian minister Saeb Erekat. "Now all we need is a third party to say who's doing it and who's not. Because if it's my word against the Israelis, I don't stand a chance."
With the road map's release, stepped up U.S. involvement in Middle East peace efforts is widely anticipated.
"Washington is going to have to show it's going to spend the time and the political capital," said Scott Lasensky, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
"The road map could turn out to be a treadmill without a concerted American effort, which inevitably means serious but sober conversations with Israel," he said.
Bill Sammon contributed to this report.

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