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Last Updated: Thursday, 29 May, 2003, 16:02 GMT 17:02 UK
Sharon faces long road to peace
The BBC's Jeremy Cooke
By Jeremy Cooke
BBC correspondent in Jerusalem

A frenzied round of diplomacy is set to begin with the latest talks between Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his Palestinian counterpart Mahmoud Abbas, better known as Abu Mazen.

It will be the first meeting between the two men since Mr Sharon and his cabinet accepted the so-called roadmap for peace.

Members of the right wing Temple Mount Faithful group step on coffin symbolising the Israeli-Palestinian roadmap
Many Israelis are strongly opposed to the terms of the roadmap
But questions remain about whether the hawkish Mr Sharon can really bring peace to the region as well as whether he has sufficient political backing in parliament or the support of the Israeli public.

He has addressed his own right-wing constituency on the matter, telling them that accepting the roadmap was an unhappy decision.

But he also offered a reassurance: "For the past three years I have said and I say it again, for there to be a true peace, a peace for generations, we will have to make painful concessions.

"We will make painful concessions, but in one area, there will be no concessions - the security of Israel and its citizens."

Settlement support

On a windswept hilltop in the West Bank, Jewish settler families gather for a relaxed afternoon of mild demonstration.

We are going to do everything in the world in order to annihilate [the roadmap]
Daniella Weiss,
Settlers' spokeswoman
But the children's pony rides and outdoor stalls give a misleading sense of normality. This place is political dynamite.

The tents here are what the Israelis call an "illegal outpost", a fledgling new Jewish settlement not sanctioned by the Israeli Government.

The settlers are natural supporters of Ariel Sharon.

But they cannot quite believe that he has signed up to the roadmap which call for the immediate removal of outposts like this.

Their spokeswoman Daniella Weiss said: "We want to send a message to express here the idea that Sharon's plan to carry out the roadmap is an impossible plan and we are going to do everything in the world in order to annihilate, to put an end to this plan "

Complex reality

The settlements are a key issue. Opinion polls say that most Israelis would give up some or all of them in return for peace.

Ariel Sharon
Mr Sharon's roadmap attitude has won backing from erstwhile opponents
But the reality is not as simple as that.

The settlers are a powerful political force. So are the Orthodox Jewish religious parties which support the settlers aims.

Effi Eitam, of the National Religious Party, is Ariel Sharon's Housing Minister. He warns that the prime minister appears to be rewarding Palestinian terrorism.

"This may become one of the great victories of the Palestinian terror," he said.

"They will think that by terror, they achieved a new state here in the Middle East, and that may encourage them to go out even further in the way of terror."

'Violence must stop first'

Mr Sharon is determined to show his supporters that he is not going soft on terrorism.

His senior adviser, Dore Gold, says Israel will do nothing until the Palestinians deliver on their commitment to crack down on Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

"Everybody who's been involved in this process comes to the same conclusion as Israel claim - that the violence has to stop as the first step; that you can't negotiate while your population is being fired upon," he said.

It is indeed the time to reach a settlement... I am happy that indeed we reach this day
Joseph Paritzky,
Shinui Party

"I think if the Palestinians adopt that course of action, which seems to be the personal position of Abu Mazen, we have a chance of really changing the situation on the ground here."

The acceptance of the roadmap is being greeted with enthusiasm by Mr Sharon's natural political enemies on the left and centre.

Joseph Paritzky, a member of the secular centrist Shinui Party who sits in Israel's coalition cabinet, said: "The decision showed that the government of Israel seeks peace.

"It is indeed the time to reach a settlement, and I think we simply need to start the wheel rolling, and I am happy that indeed we reach this day."

Thursday is Jerusalem Day, and thousands of Israelis take to the streets to celebrate their unification of the city in the 1967 Six-Day War.

These too are shaping up as potentially historic times.

But Ariel Sharon has much convincing to do if he is to persuade all of the people that the roadmap can deliver peace.

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