Mideast road map hits impasse

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

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.

"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?

Other analysts say the White House failure to press Israel harder represents a lost opportunity. "After all the lengthy [US] administration efforts, such a poor result for a week of meeting the leaders ... only thickens the smell of expected failure [of the road map]," writes Ha'aretz columnist Gideon Samet.

The current cease-fire is fragile, these critics say, and needs more tending than the US is giving it. They point to two crucial requirements, trust building and easing conditions for Palestinians.

"If the cease-fire isn't going to bring about an end to current Israeli collective punishment and settlement expansion, then we will have growing anger and frustration and this will lead to another explosion," says Palestinian legislator Ghassan Khatib. "If the US is happy about the achievement of this cease-fire, but doesn't do enough to build on it, then there will be trouble."

Mr. Khatib says Palestinians have met a longstanding Israeli demand of stopping violence with the cease-fire, yet Palestinian movement is still largely restricted and construction on the separation barrier continues, as do home demolitions, land seizures, the expansion of settlements, and the creation of outposts - sites used to expand an existing settlement or create a new one.

In Washington, Sharon pledged to remove 12 "illegal" outposts from Palestinian land and told Bush he had removed 22 others.

Dror Etkes, settlement watch director for the Israeli group Peace Now, says 22 outposts have been evacuated in the past year, but others have been built. That dynamic has continued so that since the road map was launched on June 4, outpost numbers haven't changed at all, says Mr. Etkes.

"Serious infrastructure works are going on in some outposts so that altogether, we are in a worse place than we were before [June 4]," says Etkes. "We have the same amount of outposts but now they have more houses, electricity, roads, more of everything that makes an outpost."

"The removal of settlement outposts is stalling at best, and at worst it borders on fraud," writes Mr. Barnea of Yediot Ahronoth.

Settlements seen as threats

For Palestinians like Bethlehem landowner Qaissieh, settlement expansion is a constant worry. He was given a reprieve when the Israeli army intervened Wednesday, ordering the settlers working on his land to stop.

"The road was constructed illegally without the proper permits, therefore legal measures have been taken," says Talia Somech, spokeswoman for the army's civil administration in the West Bank. "If it's Palestinian private land, obviously you can't build on it."

At Efrat, the settlement which began the construction on Qaissieh's land, a representative describes the work, some 2 1/2 miles from their community and in the middle of an uninhabited valley, as "the making of a security path."

At the YESHA Council, the body that represents settlers, spokesman Yoshua Moryossef says the group doesn't comment on these matters or on the political push to dismantle outposts.

"We prefer to answer on the ground, not in words," he says.

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