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Last Updated: Monday, 12 May, 2003, 12:51 GMT 13:51 UK
Powell visit highlights problems

Paul Reynolds
BBC News Online world affairs correspondent

US Secretary of State Colin Powell's visit threw up problems not solutions.

The "roadmap" for peace in the Middle East has been unrolled and Mr Powell has met both Israeli and Palestinian prime ministers.

But the parties have yet to start the journey they are supposed to be making together to reach the goal of a settlement and a Palestinian state by 2005.

The first stage of the map envisages Israel freezing settlements, pulling its army back to pre-intifada positions and the Palestinians cracking down on the suicide bombers of Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

What do you want, for a pregnant woman to have an abortion just because she is a settler?
Ariel Sharon
But according to Mr Sharon's office, the Israeli prime minister told Mr Powell during a lunch meeting that it was impossible to "freeze" a settlement.

"Our finest youth live there. They are already the third generation, contributing to the state and serving in elite army units. They return home and get married, so then they can't build a house and have children?" he is quoted as saying.

"What do you want, for a pregnant woman to have an abortion just because she is a settler?" he asked.

Resistance from Israeli right wing

Also at the lunch were two of Mr Sharon's ministers who exemplify the resistance from the Israeli right wing to any agreement which gives the Palestinians a state west of the River Jordan or uproots any Israeli settlements.

One of them, the Housing Minister Effi Eitam is a former general and heads the National Religious Party. He has even called Israeli Arabs, who hold Israeli citizenship, a "cancer."

The Transport Minister Avigdor Lieberman once described the former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, who nearly reached an agreement with Yasser Arafat, as "simply insane."

Israel was urged by Mr Powell to make life easier for Palestinians. So it has lifted some restrictions of entry into Israel for workers from West Bank, but it has at the same time put Gaza under an even tighter grip. Israel's problem is that the more it lifts restrictions, the easier it makes it for the bombers to strike.

Palestinians accept roadmap in principle

For his part, the new Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) has accepted the roadmap in principle but now faces the practical problem of preventing suicide attacks on Israel.

It was a series of such attacks which destroyed the Oslo agreements, signed on the White House lawn in September 1993 amidst great optimism.

We say that Abu Mazen is betraying the Palestinian people's struggle and jihad in order to appease the USA and to avoid angering Israel
Ismail Abu Shanab, Hamas
A similar failure this time will also destroy the roadmap.

And yet Hamas has again rejected any attempt to stop it.

Hamas official Ismail Abu Shanab is quoted by Radio Monte Carlo as saying: " We say that Abu Mazen is betraying the Palestinian people's struggle and jihad in order to appease the USA and to avoid angering Israel.

"The Palestinian arena rejects this. The blood of our people and martyrs was shed for freedom. It is not terrorism against anyone."

The problem for Abu Mazen is that the tighter the Israeli grip on the Palestinian territories, the more support there is for Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

Fold the map up

Israeli papers are gloomy about the map. In Ma'ariv, one commentator wrote: "Sharon has already made it clear that he will not respond to the condition (the principle of a two states for two peoples) unless the Palestinians concede in advance the 'right of return'. Since the chances of this happening are at best slim, the map can be folded from the start."

The "right of return" is for Palestinians a very sensitive issue. It involves giving up the claim of Palestinian refugees to go back to their original towns and villages. This claim, say the Palestinians, must be part of the negotiations, not given up from the start.

New American willingess to engage

The state of play will become more evident after Mr Sharon's forthcoming visit to Washington and an expected meeting between Mr Sharon and Abu Mazen.

The only sign of hope must be that in the post Saddam era in the Middle East, the United States is showing a new willingness to engage in the Israeli/Palestinian dispute.

Yet the problems themselves have not changed.

This track is an old one. Everyone knows its every twist and turn already, new roadmap or not.


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