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Israel, Palestinian Leaders Get Ready to Discuss International Peace Plan - 2003-05-27

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his Palestinian counterpart Mahmoud Abbas are expected to discuss the international peace plan for the Middle East later this week.

A Sharon-Abbas meeting would be their second face-to-face encounter in less than two weeks, and would be widely viewed as 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 peace plan that has been on the table since late last month. 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 nearly impossible.

The Israeli cabinet did approve the plan on Sunday, but Mr. Sharon has come under stiff criticism from his own Likud party for accepting it. 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 hardline Mr. Sharon sent shockwaves through Israeli conservatives, who firmly believe that Israel has a legitimate claim to the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

But Mr. Sharon's office quickly clarified the prime minister's use of the term occupation, saying he meant that Israel does not want to rule over the Palestinian population in the areas of dispute, thus not referring to the whole West Bank or Gaza Strip. The peace plan calls for an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza in 2005.

Many Israeli liberals remain skeptical that Mr. Sharon will make the hard concessions 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. But other Israelis say 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.

Mr. Abbas is not very popular among Palestinians. According to a recent Palestinian opinion poll, Mr. Abbas received a three percent approval rating.