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Israeli-Palestinian Conflict Still Key Piece of Mideast Puzzle - 2003-03-26

When British Prime Minister Tony Blair meets with U.S. President George W. Bush Wednesday and Thursday, one issue expected to figure prominently in their talks is the future of the Middle East after the war in Iraq is over. Prime Minister Blair has made it increasingly clear that resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is very important if there is to be any hope of stabilizing the region.

Before leaving for Washington, Mr. Blair said once again that he was determined to press ahead with a resumption of Middle East peace efforts. Foreign Secretary Jack Straw went further, saying it would be hypocritical to demand full compliance with United Nations resolutions by Iraq and to not demand the same sort of compliance for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Mr. Straw told British radio that he understands there is real concern about the West's so-called double standard on the issue.

Palestinians and Arabs throughout the region have complained repeatedly of what they see as the double standard used by the United States in particular when dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian issue. It is one reason they are so distrustful of Washington's motives for going to war against Iraq. And many express the same distrust about President Bush's plans for restarting Middle East peace talks.

The Bush administration has been under pressure from Arab and European allies to show it is serious about focusing on peace efforts. Washington has signaled it would do so after progress on Palestinian political reform. At issue is the roadmap, drafted by the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations. It calls for reciprocal steps by Israel and the Palestinians over a three year period leading to a final peace accord, including a viable Palestinian state alongside a secure Israel.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said Tuesday the roadmap would be unveiled as soon as a new Palestinian government, headed by Prime Minister-designate Mahmoud Abbas is confirmed by the Palestinian legislature.

Palestinians welcome the American assurances. Senior Palestinian official Saeb Erekat said the roadmap should be implemented immediately.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has consistently expressed his support for President Bush's peace efforts. He has, however, been reticent to talk about any sort of consolidated Palestinian state. Instead, he speaks about road and air corridors that would connect disparate Palestinian enclaves. Israeli analysts say Mr. Sharon is clearly hoping to be able to discuss and change the details of the roadmap.

While the Bush administration has not ruled out discussion, Secretary Powell did say Washington does not want to see extended commentary.

Some Israeli analysts say that while the war in Iraq may be far from over, the announcement of the roadmap could come soon and will signal a day of reckoning for all involved.