Bush to Publish Road Map to Peace


By Chris McGreal and Ewen MacAskill

March 15, 2003

George Bush reluctantly put his Middle East peace plan back on the agenda yesterday by promising to release his "road map" to a Palestinian state, apparently in an attempt to ease the political pressure the Iraq crisis is putting on Tony Blair. He reversed his previous insistence that the issue must wait until after the coming war, but created a new delay by tying the release of the road map to the confirmation in office of a Palestinian prime minister "in a position of real authority".

None the less, Mr Blair welcomed his decision. "The most important thing we can do is show even-handedness towards the Middle East," he said. "We are right to focus on Saddam Hussein and his weapons of mass destruction, but we must put equal focus on the people whose lives are being devastated by the lack of progress in the Middle East peace process."

Israel, which rarely criticises its principal political and financial backer in public, welcomed Mr Bush's "persistent efforts to advance the peace process". But the release of the road map will be a reversal for Ariel Sharon, who had persuaded the White House to stall its publication and is proposing more than 100 amendments which would force back the 2005 deadline for a Palestinian state.

The Palestinian cabinet minister Saeb Erekat said he feared the Americans would play into Israel's hands by releasing the road map for yet more discussion instead of pressing ahead with its implementation. "Both sides have discussed it and sent their comments. This was the final version. This should be released for implementation now," he said.

But Mr Bush shifted the political focus to Yasser Arafat by tying the road map's publication to confirmation of a prime minister. Mr Arafat agreed to cede his powers as president of the Palestinian Authority to a prime minister under considerable pressure from the Europeans, particularly Mr Blair, who persuaded him that this would break a major logjam to a settlement. The Palestinian legislature passed the necessary legislation last week, but Mr Arafat suddenly insisted on retaining the right to call and attend cabinet meetings. How far that would leave the prime minister from "real authority" is not known, but the Israelis are already protesting that Mr Arafat has to surrender power, not share it.

The issue could drag on for weeks if Mr Arafat decides to send the laws defining the prime minister's powers back to the legislature. But last night Mr Blair said he had spoken to Mr Arafat and his nominee for prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas, and was confident that the issue would be resolved quickly. "They indicated to me that they were hopeful that he might be able to take office as soon as early next week."

The Palestinians did draw some comfort from Mr Bush's speech, welcoming his statement that there must be a "viable and credible Palestinian state".

Mr Sharon and his generals have recently reinforced the suspicion that Israel is seeking to create an emasculated and dependent state little different from the black homelands of apartheid South Africa.

The Palestinians were disturbed, however, by Mr Bush's non-committal statement that "as progress is made toward peace, settlement activity in the occupied territories must end". That falls far short of their demand that Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza which are illegal under international law must be dismantled. Mr Bush's emphasis was, as the Israelis want, on the Palestinians tackling "terror" before any Israeli concessions.

The mainstream Palestinian leadership says it has repeatedly ordered an end to attacks within Israel's 1967 borders and tried to bring other groups, notably Islamic Jihad and Hamas, into a ceasefire. It also says that although the attacks in Israel are fewer, the killing of Palestinians goes on.

Israeli forces killed at least 10 members of Islamic Jihad and Hamas in Jenin and near Nablus yesterday: a Palestinian human rights group said they had killed 34 people in the past week, many of them civilians, including four children.

Eight died when a tank fired a shell into a crowd.

More Information on Israel, Palestine, and the Occupied Territories
More Information on the "Peace Process"

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