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US: No Delay on Middle East 'Roadmap' - 2003-03-11

The Bush administration insisted Monday it has not delayed a so-called "roadmap" for Israeli-Palestinian peace until after the Iraq crisis is resolved. It also said any new Palestinian prime minister should be empowered to be able to negotiate, and deliver on, the terms of peace with Israel.

Officials here are giving no date for the release of the "roadmap," which has been under development for several months by the United States and its partners in the Middle East diplomatic "quartet," the European Union, Russia and the United Nations.

However they are rejecting a weekend report by the New York Times that the plan is on hold until after resolution of the Iraq crisis. At a briefing, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher recalled that President Bush, in a policy address late last month, gave his "personal commitment" to the early implementation of the "roadmap" and said the administration's intentions have not changed. "The roadmap is the means to make progress toward the goal of two states, Israel and Palestine living side-by-side in peace and security," he said. "We and our partners in the quartet have drafted the roadmap as a means to make progress. The president has stated his determination to see the roadmap implemented as soon as possible."

The "roadmap" provides a timetable for reciprocal steps by Israel and the Palestinians over a three year span leading to a comprehensive peace including full Palestinian statehood and Arab-wide recognition of Israel.

Mr. Boucher said the "Quartet" partners have been awaiting, before moving ahead on the roadmap, the formation of a new post-election government in Israel and the selection and approval of what he termed an "empowered and credible" Palestinian Prime Minister.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's new government was officially seated late last month, while Palestinian Authority chief Yasser Arafat has nominated his longtime political associate Mahmoud Abbas for the prime minister post.

Mr. Boucher declined to comment on the Abbas nomination pending final approval of the choice by Palestinian legislators. But he said the change of structure may be less important than a change in the distribution of powers, concentrated to date in the hands of Mr. Arafat. "In the end, as I said, the individual is only part of the picture. It's the question of is the person empowered, is the person capable of moving forward, is the person given the authority, are the institutions given authority, to stop the violence and start establishing a regular state."

A senior U.S. official who spoke to reporters said an "empowered and credible" Palestinian prime minister should be both in charge of the peace process and the security institutions needed to deliver on the terms of peace accords. In a decision Monday, the Palestinian Legislative Council left control of peace talks and security issues to Mr. Arafat, though there was no specific U.S. response to that action.