- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 15, 2003

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has taken a tough line just days before a critical Washington summit with President Bush, with Israeli troops yesterday seizing a Gaza Strip town that defense officials said had served as a base for Palestinian mortar attacks.

Israeli-Palestinian clashes have continued almost daily, despite the pending summit and despite a visit by Secretary of State Colin L. Powell to Mr. Sharon and new Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas earlier this week to push a Middle East “road map” for peace endorsed by the United States, the United Nations, the European Union and Russia.

“Unfortunately, Sharon seems to be doing more to run out the clock on the road map than he is to trying to move down the path toward implementing it,” said Lewis Roth, assistant executive director of Americans for Peace Now, one of several Jewish-American organizations that have endorsed the road map.

“It’s frustrating to many of us because President Bush has clearly put his prestige behind the plan,” Mr. Roth said.

Mr. Sharon is to hold his first meeting with Mr. Abbas tomorrow before traveling to Washington Tuesday to meet with Mr. Bush.

Mr. Powell made little apparent progress in getting Mr. Sharon to begin implementing portions of the road map, which calls for a series of steps by both sides to end terrorism, ensure Israel’s security and create a Palestinian state by 2005.

Citing continuing security threats despite Mr. Abbas’ appointment, Israel on Monday reimposed a travel ban on Palestinian residents of the Gaza Strip. A day later, the Jerusalem Post carried an interview in which Mr. Sharon suggested he would try to hold on to Jewish settlements in much of the West Bank, apparently going back on a pledge he had made a month ago to relinquish sensitive settlements in a final peace deal.

Mr. Sharon told the Post that the question of Jewish settlements was “not on the horizon,” while Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz said after a Cabinet meeting Wednesday that the “road map in its present form is bad for Israel.”

Asked about Mr. Sharon’s comments, Mr. Powell said during a trip to Bulgaria yesterday that he hoped that in the coming Bush-Sharon talks, “people will be able to clarify their positions and we will find a way to go forward.”

“We can’t just stay where we are,” Mr. Powell insisted. “We can’t miss this moment of opportunity.”

But Morton A. Klein, national president of the New York-based Zionist Organization of America, which staunchly opposes the road map plan, said he believes Mr. Sharon will give Mr. Bush a long list of concerns and conditions about the peace plan.

“We find it astonishing that President Bush has just eliminated one terrorist state in the Middle East — Iraq — and now is ready to create another terrorist state under [Palestinian leader Yasser] Arafat right on Israel’s border,” Mr. Klein said.

“I think Sharon will be making it quite clear that Israel can’t do many of the things involved even in the early stages of the road map, because it would just increase the terrorist threat,” Mr. Klein said.

Palestinian leaders have accepted the road map, but Israeli officials have long made clear that they have reservations about many of the individual steps in the plan as well as larger questions about who will monitor compliance with the agreement.

Israeli officials complain that Mr. Abbas has done little to restrain violent Palestinian groups, such as Hamas, and that Mr. Arafat retains sizable control over Palestinian security and financial policies.

A U.S. package worth about $9 billion in military aid and loan guarantees, included in the Iraq war supplemental spending bill signed by Mr. Bush last month, is not expected to be endangered despite U.S. frustration with parts of Mr. Sharon’s policies.

Mr. Roth said the prospect of a White House meeting undercut Mr. Powell’s diplomatic entreaties to Mr. Sharon earlier this week.

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