Bumps in Middle East 'road map'

Cease-fire talks were canceled Monday, adding to the problems facing the creation of Palestinian state.

As Palestinians and Israelis reengage in talks, their main instrument for working toward peace looks increasingly at risk.

The "road map," authored by the US, the European Union, Russia, and the United Nations, outlines a way to end the Middle East conflict and create a Palestinian state by 2005. The quartet met with Israeli and Palestinian officials last week in London, where the road map was a key part of discussions.

Its importance extends beyond the borders of this bitterly contested patch of land. A key US goal in the lead-up to a possible attack on Iraq is defusing Arab anger at the US's perceived bias toward Israel. Championing the road map serves that end.

But while the parties involved publicly support the plan, behind the scenes officials express reservations. They question the Israeli and American commitment to it and Palestinian interest in complying with its requirements.

"I wouldn't bet my next month's salary on it surviving the way it's written now," says one foreign diplomat involved in the talks.

These officials suggest that the road map faces two traps. One is death by a thousand cuts if participants whittle away at its substance in endless negotiations; the other is that it will be burned by events on the ground, whether Israeli domestic politics or the spiraling violence in Gaza between the Israeli army and the militant group Hamas.

Israel's Byzantine coalition politics represents the first hurdle. On Sunday, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon signed a coalition agreement with the National Religious Party (NRP) to help create a government in the 120-seat parliament. If this arrangement comes to pass, the government will have a right-wing bent that does not bode well for peace discussions. The NRP's burly, bearded leader, Effi Eitam, holds hard-line views, including the belief that Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat should be killed.

The pact between Mr. Sharon's Likud Party and the NRP reportedly dictates that the government will support President Bush's push for a Palestinian state. The NRP has made clear, however, that it will oppose the policy in Cabinet discussions.

Furthermore, Israeli papers say that the agreement promises Mr. Eitam the construction and housing ministry, which oversees the building of settlements. The road map demands an immediate freeze on all settlement activity, something Eitam would oppose.

Sharon's own commitment to the road map is not entirely clear. He has accepted the principles of Mr. Bush's vision of a Palestinian state, but rejected a Labor Party request to unequivocally commit to evacuating settlements.

It's a tactic he has used in the past. Sharon accepted in principle the 2001 Mitchell Report, meant to restart political talks but never submitted it to his cabinet for approval.

"Sharon is taking a page from Arafat in his strategy of saying yes in principle," says a Western diplomat. "This allows both men to look good internationally but avoid action and thereby keep constituents happy."

In mid-January, Sharon publicly dismissed the quartet and its plan, telling Newsweek magazine that "the quartet is nothing! Don't take it seriously! There is [another] plan that will work." In an attempt to calm the controversy caused by his comments, Israel released a statement saying that it and the US "see eye to eye" within the framework of the quartet.

In late January, The Forward, a newspaper based in New York, described what that shared vision might entail. Attributing its story to high-level Israeli and US sources, The Forward said the two countries had a plan to establish a "demilitarized Palestinian state with temporary borders."

Apart from comments by Secretary of State Colin Powell, the US was largely silent, which worries some observers. "We'll see if the US will hold to the road map," says Palestinian Interior Minister Hani al Hassan. "It's a question."

The plan described in The Forward jibes with changes a Sharon-appointed team recently suggested for the road map. "We think there are things that could be better drafted and terminology better suited to what the road map is supposed to be: a practical implementation of the message put forth by President Bush," explains Alan Baker, a Foreign Ministry legal adviser.

The Israeli version details more than 100 adjustments to the original road map, according to Ha'aretz newspaper. The plan:

• eliminates the 2005 timetable set out in the road map and in Mr. Bush's speech.

• sharpens the map's vague reference to a Palestinian state with the "characteristics of sovereignty" by detailing a demilitarized state with Israeli-controlled entrances, exits, and airspace;

• requires Palestinians to meet a series of demands - including establishing a cease-fire and launching political reforms - before Israel does anything. The original road map requires Israel to take several steps, including dismantling settlement outposts, allowing Palestinian officials to travel, and halting home demolitions and the destruction of infrastructure.

Mr. Baker stresses that a Palestinian cease-fire is essential to build the public support Sharon needs for a peace plan. "When terrorism stops and [there's] no need to respond to it, then we can set about putting this in place," he says.

Yet ongoing fighting in Gaza looks likely to stymie that hope. In response to Palestinian mortar fire, the Israeli army has split Gaza into three parts and pursued Hamas leaders who, predictably, swear to continue their struggle. More than 40 Gazans have been killed in the past 10 days, and cease-fire talks scheduled to begin Monday in Cairo were canceled.

The result of continued violence and reduced road-map demands could well be a "terrible vicious circle," says Yossi Alpher, former head of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies. "How can you end this by ... expecting [Palestinians] to launch reforms ... with the very limited political horizon Sharon is offering ... on an open-ended timetable?" he asks.

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