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Mideast road map hits impasse

Amid little progress on settlers and militants, Sharon met with Bush Wednesday.

By Nicole GaouetteStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / July 31, 2003


Yaacoub Qaissieh guns his van up the curving road, spraying gravel at a herd of startled goats as he presses harder on the gas. He stops at the top of a rise and is out of his Volkswagon before its engine stops wheezing.

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"There," the Bethlehem landowner points down the hill to a knot of armed men from a nearby settlement who guard three large bulldozers carving roads into his land.

"While their prime minister is in Washington talking about taking down settlements, Israelis are busy putting up new ones," Mr. Qaissieh says bitterly.

As Israeli and Palestinian leaders met with President Bush recently, each side says the other is not meeting its obligations under a US-backed peace plan. Israeli actions on the ground undermine the "road map" and reflect Israeli ambivalence about it. The Palestinian refusal to confront militant groups leaves Israelis wary about their long-term intentions.

The impasse and Washington's failure to push past it pose a threat to the nascent peace, analysts say.

"[The Palestinian side] isn't arresting and Sharon isn't removing," writes Israeli analyst Nahum Barnea in the Yediot Ahronoth newspaper. "That is an equation that is not favorable... It could produce, ultimately, the resumption of terror."

Little of this uneasiness surfaced publicly in the separate meetings Mr. Bush held with the Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas and his Israeli counterpart, Ariel Sharon.

Mr. Sharon's July 29 trip to Washington marked his 10th meeting with Bush and was an ostentatiously pleasant affair.

"They touched each other on the arm, whispered "Ariel" and "George," and promised to keep in touch - all sweetness," wrote Hemi Shalev in Ma'ariv newspaper.

Bush reaffirmed his commitment to Israel's security and Sharon emphasized that he is willing to ease conditions for Palestinians once their leadership moves to "dismantle terror organizations."

The sole area of difference came about the security barrier that Israel is building alongside and, in many places, through the West Bank. Israel says it is necessary to stop Palestinian attacks. Palestinians say the wall's detours around Israeli settlements will annex some 10 percent of West Bank land, indicating that politics, not just security concerns, are driving the wall's construction.

During Mr. Abbas's July 26 visit, Bush said, "It is very difficult to develop confidence between the Palestinians and Israel with a wall snaking through the West Bank."

But three days later, standing at Sharon's side in the White House rose garden, Bush used the Israeli term "fence" to describe the structure and simply asked Israel to consider the consequences of its actions.

"Basically, Sharon came back safe," says Efraim Inbar, director of the BESA Center for Strategic Studies at Bar Ilan University. "They called the wall a fence and insisted on dismantling the terrorist infrastructure... there's no pressure on Israel."

An opportunity lost?