- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 31, 2003

JERUSALEM — The United States accepts a Palestinian plan to persuade militant groups to halt anti-Israeli attacks rather than launch an immediate crackdown, the Palestinians said yesterday ahead of a three-way summit with President Bush.

Israel has said that, for now, it would accept a cease-fire from the militants, though it wants Palestinian officials to act to disarm and disband the groups as soon as possible. The security issue has been a main sticking point in starting the U.S.-backed “road map” to peace, a three-stage plan aimed at creating a Palestinian state in 2005.

Following similar meetings with the Israelis earlier, U.S. officials met Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas to haggle over the road map’s first step: declarations by each side recognizing the other’s right to statehood and security. U.S. officials want the declarations ready when Mr. Bush meets Mr. Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in a summit Wednesday in the Jordanian port city of Aqaba.

Making a goodwill gesture ahead of the summit, the Israeli army said yesterday it would relax closures on the West Bank and Gaza Strip from midnight last night, meaning that 25,000 Palestinians with permits would be allowed into Israel to work each day.

In his weekly radio address yesterday, Mr. Bush said the road to peace “will require difficult decisions and leadership, but there is no other choice. … No leader of conscience can accept more months and years of humiliation and killing and mourning.”

Arguing that nothing can be achieved before terrorism ends, he said, “All concerned must shake off the old arguments and the old ways and act in the cause of peace, and I will do all I can to help the parties reach an agreement and to see that agreement is enforced.”

In talks yesterday between Mr. Abbas and U.S. Assistant Secretary of State William Burns, the Americans accepted Mr. Abbas’ position that there first must be a cease-fire before militant groups can be dismantled, Palestinian Foreign Minister Nabil Shaath said.

“This is an important goal for us,” Mr. Shaath told reporters. Neither Mr. Burns nor Mr. Abbas made a public statement. The U.S. Embassy declined to comment on Mr. Shaath’s statement.

Mr. Abbas has said he preferred persuasion to stop suicide bombings and other anti-Israeli attacks and that, within days, he could have a cease-fire agreement with Hamas, the main group carrying out attacks.

The Israelis have demanded that Mr. Abbas stage a crackdown. A Sharon aide said Friday that the Israelis would accept a cease-fire first but that it must be the first stage of action.

Meanwhile, the militant group Islamic Jihad distributed fliers yesterday saying it has “no intention of attacking the American people and do not consider the American people our enemy” — a response to a warning the U.S. Embassy posted on its Web site on Friday saying it had received “credible reports” of plans to kidnap U.S. citizens in the Gaza Strip. Hamas issued a similar statement Friday. The warning was still posted on the site yesterday.

Hamas and Islamic Jihad have claimed responsibility for scores of attacks in Israel that have killed more than 350 people in the past 32 months. Though Americans have been killed over the years, they usually have died in attacks that targeted Israelis, not Americans.

The declarations by the Israelis and Palestinians recognizing the rights of the other to security and statehood are supposed to be the first step of the U.S.-backed road map peace plan, which begins with a halt to the violence. In its first stage, it also calls for a freeze in Jewish settlement construction.

Mr. Shaath said the Americans had made a commitment to “move ahead with the implementation of the road map with all its details.”

Mr. Burns and Elliott Abrams, who heads the Middle East desk at the National Security Council, met separately Friday with Palestinian security chief Mohammed Dahlan and Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom.

U.S. officials have told both sides the United States intends to set up American-led groups to closely monitor implementation of the road map.

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