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US Dismisses Suggestions of Mideast Diplomatic Defeat - 2004-05-03

The State Department dismissed suggestions Monday that the defeat of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's Gaza withdrawal plan in a vote of his Likud party was also a defeat for U.S. Middle East diplomacy. Secretary of Colin Powell will discuss the next steps in peace efforts Tuesday in a meeting of the Middle East "Quartet" at the United Nations.

The Bush administration had made a heavy political investment in Mr. Sharon's plan for "disengagement" from the Palestinians. And the plan's defeat in the vote of the Likud party rank-and-file spawned media commentaries that the turn of events had been a blow to U.S. credibility in the region.

However the State Department says that the Likud vote, though it may have been a setback for Mr. Sharon, does not foreclose opportunities to move ahead with the international "road map" for peace which it says remains the basis for U.S. Middle East policy.

At a news briefing, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the United States had seen the Sharon plan as an opportunity to advance the peace process, and still does.

But he said other ideas will present themselves and said he does not think that "we've hitched our wagon to any single effort." "It's not quite fair to say that we'Ve lost something that we were looking for. What we do have now is a political situation that will be dealt with by the political leaders in Israel. We note however that the population in Israel, by and large, appears to be supportive of the Gaza withdrawal plan. Prime Minister Sharon says he still wants to move forward, and we still think it's a good idea," he said.

At the White House, spokesman Scott McClellan said President Bush continues to believe that Mr. Sharon had put forward a "bold proposal" that can help move forward toward the vision of a two-state solution to the conflict, and that it can "help us get moving again on the "road map."

Secretary Powell convenes at the United Nations Tuesday with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and top officials of Russia and the European Union for the first ministerial-level meeting in nearly a year of the Middle East "quartet," which drafted the "road map" and released it early last year.

The plan calls for Israel and the Palestinians to take a series of parallel and reciprocal steps leading to two states living side by side in peace by the end of 2005.

In addition to Mr. Powell and the U.N. chief, the attendees will include Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, European Union chief diplomat Javier Solana, and Foreign Minister Brian Cowan of Ireland, whose government currently holds the EU's rotating presidency.