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Experts: US Involvement Necessary to Achieve Mideast Peace - 2003-05-02

U.S. officials and some Middle East analysts are expressing cautious hope that the new international peace plan called the roadmap could end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Secretary of State Colin Powell is expected to travel to Israel and the West Bank next week to launch the detailed plan, which offers a step-by-step approach to end more than two-and-a-half years of violence and eventually lead to a Palestinian state by 2005.

Virtually every effort to end the Palestinian "intifada," or uprising that erupted in September 2000 has failed because of a surge in bloodshed.

Even in the hours leading up to and following the Bush administration's release of the long-awaited roadmap to Middle East peace the bitter conflict flared.

A Palestinian suicide bomber detonated his explosive belt outside a crowded jazz bar in Tel Aviv, killing himself and several Israelis.

Israeli tanks and troops blasted their way into a densely crowded neighborhood in the Gaza Strip killing at least 12 Palestinians, including both wanted militants and a two-year-old boy.

Secretary of State Colin Powell hopes such violence will not derail the roadmap before both sides reach the first stop sign.

"We've got to get beyond this period of suicide bombings and retaliatory actions, or other defensive actions, that are taken to end the violence and to protect one's society," he said. "We can't let these sorts of incidents immediately contaminate the roadmap, or contaminate the process that we are now involved in."

Salim Tamari is the Director of the Institute of Jerusalem Studies in Jerusalem and is currently a visiting professor at New York University.

Mr. Tamari says only if the peace proposal leads to both a significant reduction in violence and Israeli steps to improve conditions for the Palestinians will progress be made on the roadmap and significant internal reform within the Palestinian Authority.

"The key, novel and positive feature of the roadmap as far as this question is concerned, is not that it is phased and it has a clear objective at the end, which is statehood," said Mr. Tamari. But that the steps leading to that are reciprocal. They are conditional on each side simultaneously taking steps to release the situation which leads to violence. And without this reciprocity I think it will be impossible to move on, on the issue of reform."

Larry Garber, the director of the U.S. Agency for International Development's [AID] mission to the West Bank and Gaza Strip, says there are reasons for optimism that the roadmap may end the current uprising and lead to a Palestinian state.

Mr. Garber says the appointment of the new Palestinian Prime Minister, Mahmoud Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, coupled with U.S. prestige in the region following the Iraq war, could give the roadmap momentum.

"One clearly is, what are the implications of what has happened in Iraq and how that effects the situation in the Middle East, including the engagement of the international community, particularly the United States? The second I think is Prime Minister Abu Mazen's [Mahmoud Abbas] appointment," he said. "I mean that is a real shift and again could have, could have significant impact on those issues. And the third is, I believe, a general weariness on both populations, Palestinian and Israeli, with what the current status quo is and a real desire to see something else."

The new Palestinian prime minister faces the daunting task of stopping attacks by militant groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad which are responsible for killing hundreds of Israelis.

Professor Salim Tamari says the only way he can succeed is if such an effort is immediately rewarded by Israeli concessions.

"I think reining in the extremists can only succeed if it is happening within the political context in which the Israeli army will reverse its intrusion in the occupied territories and begin a process of withdrawal and will give hope for Abu Mazen [Mahmoud Abbas] at the end of the road there is a prize to be won," said Professor Tamari. "If there is no clear delineation of that prize and no timetable towards it then he will be seen as an instrument of Israeli policy and that will undermine his position from the beginning."

Professor Nathan Brown, who is a Middle East specialist, and a teacher at George Washington University has just published a book on Palestinian politics, said it is difficult to be an optimist when predicting the future in the Middle East.

"Yes this is an opportunity we should not let pass," said Mr. Brown. "If you are asking if I am optimistic, no, of course not. It never pays to be optimistic. But this is the best game we have, or the best thing going and really the only thing going."

The Israeli-Palestinian peace process is known for its tortured trail of occasional progress and frequent setbacks.

It is not known whether the roadmap will lead Israelis and Palestinians to a peaceful future, or if the journey will get sidetracked by another explosion of violence.

Analysts say one bright spot for the roadmap and its chances for success is that for the first time since President Bush took office, his administration is pledging to be fully involved in the push for peace.