U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell heads to the Middle East this weekend to meet with Arab and Israeli leaders and to promote the "road map," the latest international peace proposal to bring Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiating table.
Mr. Powell faces a difficult task as he comes to the region to promote the latest peace plan. The "road map" details a three-year plan designed to culminate in a final peace agreement and the establishment of an independent Palestinian state in 2005. But, just getting started is proving a real challenge.
The Palestinians have accepted the road map and want it implemented immediately. The Israelis have been more vague. Government spokesman, Zalman Shoval said Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is going to bring up Israel's reservations about the plan when he meets Sunday with Secretary Powell.
"Israel has certain reservations," he said. "It's not a matter that we do not accept the road map in principle. We do. We have certain factual reservations about the timetable. There's the matter about the right of return which, if it went ahead, would actually force Israel to commit suicide."
Prime Minister Sharon said earlier this week that the Palestinians must give up the right of return to Israel for Palestinian refugees who fled or were driven out when the state of Israel was created in 1948. The Palestinians insist the issue must be up for negotiation.
Mr. Sharon has said he really wants to discuss his concerns with President Bush himself during a visit to Washington, possibly later this month.
The Israelis also say nothing can be implemented unless the Palestinians take the first step by halting attacks by Palestinian militants against Israel.
Newly appointed Palestinian Labor Minister Ghassan Khatib has different expectations.
"We expect to see a result to American efforts to convince Israel to put an end to their policy of using force to achieve objectives, into using peaceful negotiations to achieve the same objectives," said Mr. Khatib.
Mr. Powell arrives here Saturday evening. He is expected to have a working dinner with Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom. He then meets Prime Minister Sharon on Sunday before traveling to Ramallah to meet with the new Palestinian Prime Minister, Mahmoud Abbas, and members of his cabinet. Mr. Powell is not scheduled to meet with Palestinian President Yasser Arafat, who the United States has criticized for not stopping terror attacks.
On Monday, Secretary Powell travels on to Cairo and Amman for talks with Egyptian and Jordanian leaders, before going on to Saudi Arabia to complete the Middle East portion of his trip.