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Last Updated: Tuesday, 29 July, 2003, 07:48 GMT 08:48 UK
Pressure on Sharon for a change

By Paul Reynolds
BBC News Online world affairs correspondent

The Israeli and Palestinian travellers trudging the route marked "Middle East roadmap" are at least not trying to push each other off the cliff for the moment.

Whether they continue along the narrow path leading to the mountain top or plunge into the ravine remains unclear.

Perhaps US President George W Bush, a born-again Christian, will try to rally the travellers by quoting Psalm 121: "I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills."

Ariel Sharon
Ariel Sharon says a Palestinian ceasefire alone is not enough
It is in the hope that he can persuade them to carry on that Mr Bush called to the White House first the new Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas - also known as Abu Mazen - and then brought forward a meeting with the Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

Mr Bush's meeting with Abu Mazen last week demonstrated the political credibility the Palestinians have gained in Washington.

The new American approach has also brought unusual pressure on Mr Sharon, who has felt it necessary to go to Washington bearing gifts in the form of a prisoner release, the lifting of some restrictions on the movement of Palestinians and the issuing of more permits for Palestinians to work in Israel.

Mr Sharon is also having to justify the Israeli construction of a security barrier around the West Bank which is designed to keep out suicide bombers (as has been done around the Gaza Strip) but which is also encroaching over the so-called green line marking the borders as they were in 1967.

The Israelis call this construction a fence on the principle, as the American poet Robert Frost put it, that "good fences make good neighbours." Palestinians sometimes refer to it as a wall since it made out of concrete and recalls, they say, the Berlin Wall.

Balancing act

The task for Mr Bush is to encourage the Israelis on the one hand to be as generous as possible, in order to show the Palestinians that they can gain from the process.

He also needs to urge the Palestinians to develop the ceasefire into a permanent cessation to show Israelis that they will not be subject to attack.

The critical thing is dismantling the terror groups. If this is not done, I predict a resumption of terror attacks
Moshe Yaalon
Israeli Chief of Staff
The key issue is how to convert the current three month ceasefire by Palestinian groups, which started on 29 June, into a proper negotiation.

This would lead first to the creation of a Palestinian state with interim borders and then to talks on the issues of Jerusalem, refugees and permanent borders which will have to be settled before there can be a final agreement.

According to the roadmap negotiating strategy drawn up by the quartet of the United States, the United Nations, the European Union and Russia, the creation of a state of Palestine should be possible by the end of this year.

But already the timetable has slipped and the conditions for the next stage have not been met.

Phase I of the roadmap, which was supposed to be completed by the end of May this year, proposes:

  • The Palestinians immediately undertake an unconditional cessation of violence. Palestinians undertake comprehensive political reform in preparation for statehood.

  • Israel takes all necessary steps to help normalise Palestinian life. Israel withdraws from Palestinian areas occupied from 28 September 2000. Israel also freezes all settlement activity.

    Phase II is supposed to run from June to December this year and to culminate in the "possible creation of an independent Palestinian state with provisional borders".

    The move from Phase I to Phase II depends on the approval of the quartet that the conditions have been fulfilled.

    Ceasefire not enough

    Mr Sharon says that a ceasefire alone in Phase I is not sufficient since the roadmap talks of action by the Palestinian Authority against "terrorist capabilities and infrastructure".

    The Israeli Chief of Staff Lieutenant General Moshe Yaalon said on Sunday: "The critical thing is dismantling the terror groups.

    We want the release of all the prisoners. This is one of the conditions of the ceasefire
    Abdel Aziz Rantisi
    Hamas spokesman

    "If this is not done, I predict a resumption of terror attacks."

    The Palestinians say that there has not been enough normalisation and that the Israeli occupation has not been ended in all areas.

    They point to recent Israelis figures which show that there was an increase in the settler population of 5,415 in the first half of this year to a total of 231,443. The roadmap says that settlement activity should be frozen, "including natural growth".

    Prisoners issue

    The Palestinians have also chosen to emphasise the release of prisoners even though these are not actually mentioned in the roadmap.

    But they have become a live issue since the Palestinian groups on ceasefire say that they will not extend it unless all prisoners are set free.

    Roadblock being removed
    Some roadblocks have been removed as gestures of good intent
    "We want the release of all the prisoners," said Hamas spokesman Abdel Aziz Rantisi. "This is one of the conditions of the ceasefire."

    Keeping the travellers on the path will test Mr Bush's abilities to the limits.

    It is not his style to engage in the kind of detailed diplomacy in which Henry Kissinger specialised but he has surprised some of his critics by getting engaged at all.

    His best hope perhaps is that war weariness may have set in among the populations on both sides and that therefore moderation may prevail. But don't count on it.


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