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Can 'Roadmap' Peace Plan be Implemented? - 2003-05-02

After months of delay, the "Roadmap" for Middle East peace has finally been unveiled, even though most of what it contains has been known and talked about for months. It was drafted by the United States, the European Union, the United Nations and Russia, and envisions a final settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the establishment of an independent Palestinian state by 2005. The question now is can it be implemented. Some see the road map as a real opportunity to end years of Israeli-Palestinian bloodshed and move forward toward a broader peace; others believe it will go nowhere. But, everyone agrees it's the only game in town.

The new Palestinian Prime Minister, Mahmoud Abbas has called for its immediate implementation.

Mr. Abbas told Palestinian lawmakers his government is committed to the roadmap and he warned Israel not to try to change it. He was adamant, "We will not negotiate the roadmap", he said. "It must be implemented, not negotiated."

Israel, on the other hand, says the plan is merely a framework and not a step-by-step instruction manual. In fact, the Israeli government has already asked for numerous changes.

"We really don't need the map because we have charted the road for peace," said Raanan Gissin, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's spokesman. "For Israel and for this Prime Minister in particular, peace is a natural choice. It comes out of our decision, a conscious decision, not out of pressure to try to make peace."

But, Mr. Gissin told VOA the Palestinians must take the first step by cracking down on violence. The Palestinians say Israel must move simultaneously to lift curfews and start withdrawing its troops from Palestinian towns and villages.

The road map addresses these issues: It demands an end to Palestinian attacks against Israel and a crackdown on those perpetrating violence. It requires a freeze on all construction in existing Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and a dismantling of all settlement outposts built since 2001. The roadmap also says Israel must withdraw its troops from areas it has re-occupied over the past two-and-a-half years.

The lengthy document contains many other provisions that require both sides to do things they have been reluctant to do for years.

Akiva Eldar, a political commentator for Israel's Ha'aretz newspaper, said despite its shortcomings, the road map can work.

"It can work because of the idea to bring in American inspectors so the Israeli Prime Minister will not be able to play at the same time the role of one of the major players and of a referee," he said. "Number two is to stop the vicious circle of suicide bombings and then the [Israeli] assassination of Palestinian activists. We would never be able to do this alone."

The new Palestinian Prime Minister, Mr. Abbas, has denounced violence and called for all Palestinian groups to be disarmed, except the police. But many doubt whether he will be able to achieve that, and the militant groups have already warned him not to try. Their defiance was underlined by Wednesday's suicide bomb attack in Tel Aviv, just hours after his new government was confirmed by the Palestinian legislature.

The question also remains whether Prime Minister Sharon is willing to make the "painful sacrifices" he has often spoken of. His spokesman, Raanan Gissin, says yes. But, others believe the Prime Minister will find it difficult, given his own long-held conservative views, and the opposition to such concessions from within his right wing government.

The two leaders do not agree on much, except that U.S. involvement is the key. But many Palestinians question whether President Bush will be able to follow through on the U.S. commitments in the roadmap as he faces a re-election battle next year.

"We understand American politics," said Ali Jarbawi, Palestinian political scientist at Birzeit University in Ramallah and one of the skeptics. "Internal pressure is much more important for a president who is going to run for re-election. I think nothing is going to come out of this administration, at least during the first term in office and I'm confident that nothing much is going to come out of it in its second term in office, if it's re-elected."

There are concerns about the road map in the United States among several groups the president may need to get re-elected. They include members of Congress, pro-Israel lobby groups and Christian fundamentalists who have warned the president against pressuring Israel.

Israeli political commentator Akiva Eldar said implementing the road map will be a challenge for the Bush Administration.

"The peace process between the Israelis and the Palestinians is offering not only the Israelis and Palestinians a very unique opportunity to show that we are heading towards a new Middle East, but it's also a very unique opportunity for the Bush administration that they are really willing to invest diplomacy, economy, any effort to change this region," he said. "The entire Arab and Muslim world is now going to watch the Bush administration."

In addition to the U.S. role, the plan also calls for an international conference to tackle what are called the "final status issues", the status of Palestinian refugees and Jewish settlements, sovereignty over Jerusalem and peace between Israel and other Arab states.

Everyone knows that resolving those issues is a long way off even though the road map does set a clear timetable, the end of 2005. For now it's a matter of taking the first steps.