Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his Palestinian counterpart, Mahmoud Abbas, are widely expected to hold talks this week about the international peace plan for the Middle East, the so-called 'road map.' That meeting will likely be a precursor to a three-way summit, possibly next week that is to include President Bush. The meetings are intended to jump-start implementation of the road map, which continues to draw skepticism and criticism.
A Sharon-Abbas meeting would be their second face-to-face encounter within less than two weeks and, observers here, say it would be a positive signal for President Bush to go ahead with a three-way summit meeting, possibly next week. The idea is that such a high level meeting and the personal involvement of the American president would jump start the the road map.
The peace plan has been on the table since late last month, but even the first steps have yet to be implemented.
Palestinians and many liberal Israelis fear the plan could easily be torpedoed by militant Palestinian groups who might not stop attacks against Israel or by Israeli reservations about the plan, which could make its implementation near impossible.
The Israeli cabinet did approve the road map on Sunday, but Mr. Sharon has come under stiff criticism from his own Likud party for accepting the plan. Mr. Sharon insists he is serious about reaching a peace agreement with the Palestinians. He told Israeli lawmakers that continuing to keep 3.5 million Palestinians under occupation is bad for Israel and bad for the Palestinians.
That word 'occupation' coming from the hard-line Mr. Sharon sent shock waves through Israeli conservatives, who firmly believe that Israel has a legitimate claim to the West Bank and Gaza Strip. To use the term 'occupation' would negate such claims. The road map envisages an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza in 2005.
While many conservatives are shocked, some Israeli liberals remain skeptical that Mr. Sharon will make the hard concessions when the time comes during negotiations. Political commentator Akiva Eldar writes in the Ha'aretz newspaper that Israel's many reservations about the peace plan amount to what he terms an Israeli dictate of a Palestinian surrender agreement. Other Israelis, however, say that Ariel Sharon, may have decided that his country is at a historic crossroad and that he needs to choose the right way forward.
On the Palestinian side, Mahmoud Abbas also has his work cut out for him. He has vowed to crack down on militants. It remains to be seen whether he can accomplish that. He also has to work with Palestinian president Yasser Arafat who is reluctant to share power and some say, is trying to trip up the new prime minister every chance he gets. And, Mr. Abbas is not very popular among Palestinians. According to a recent Palestinian opinion poll, Mr. Abbas received a three percent approval rating - not a good sign for a man who is supposed to lead his people through difficult negotiations to statehood.