Palestinians react with skepticism to Bush's affirmation of road map

The Jerusalem Post

15 March 2003

Senior Palestinian officials said George W. Bush's speech on Friday amounted to a setback, saying the US president should be pushing to implement the "road map" to Palestinian statehood instead of calling for another round of consultations.

Foreign diplomats in the region also said they were surprised Washington was calling for more consultations on the plan, which was formulated by the so-called Quartet of Mideast mediators - the United States, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations. The three-phase plan envisions a provisional Palestinian state by the end of the year, and full independence by 2005.

Bush appeared to be suggesting Friday that the road map needed more work. He said that after a credible Palestinian prime minister has been confirmed in office - a move expected next week - "the road map for peace will be given to the Palestinians and the Israelis." The Palestinians and Israelis were given drafts of the plan last year and have already held initial consultations.

"We feel it's complete and ready to go," a Quartet diplomat said Friday, speaking on condition of anonymity. "The important thing is to move forward without further prevarication."

The Bush announcement came as Israeli forces in the West Bank killed 10 Islamic militants in two gun battles, including one Friday morning in the battle-scarred Jenin refugee camp.

Also an 18-year-old Palestinian died in disputed circumstances near the West Bank town of Qalqiliya. Palestinians said he was shot dead by Israeli troops as he walked with two friends through an olive grove after dark on Friday.

The military said a patrol spotted the three, with lighted fire bombs, about to attack passing Israeli traffic. The soldiers opened fire, slightly wounding two of the youths, who were arrested. The army said no gunshot wounds were found on the dead teen and it was possible he may have fallen and received a fatal blow on the head as he tried to flee.

"Once this road map is delivered, we will expect and welcome contributions from Israel and the Palestinians to this document that will advance true peace. We will urge them to discuss the road map with one another," Bush said Friday.

Jonathan Peled, an Israeli government official, would only say that Israel needs more time to study the Bush remarks. Israel has expressed reservations about the plan, saying the link between Palestinian performance and moving to the next phase is not strong enough.

After Palestinians complete government reforms and make an effort to rein in militants, Israel would be required to freeze Jewish settlement activity in the West Bank and Gaza Strip - a move that could lead to the collapse of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's hardline government.

Bush's announcement Friday also appeared aimed at helping British Prime Minister Tony Blair whose Labor Party is deeply split over his support for war on Iraq.

Blair quickly hailed the Bush remarks on the road map, saying work on an Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement could begin as early as next week.

Blair called Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat on Friday and told him he is "working on implementation of the road map," said an Arafat adviser, Nabil Abu Rdeneh.

Arafat asked Blair to push for immediate implementation of the plan. "We appreciate the Bush speech and his commitment to the road map," Abu Rdeneh said. "But what is needed now is immediate implementation of the road map without any changes."

Because initial consultations already took place, the next step was to have been an announcement by Washington that the plan was final, Palestinian officials said. However, that announcement was repeatedly postponed, first because of Israel's January elections and then because of the intensifying US-Iraq showdown.

Palestinian Parliament Speaker Ahmed Qureia said Friday that the time for debate was over.

"We previously declared our clear position in accepting the road map. What is needed now is to immediately unveil the road map and pressure the Israeli government to accept it without any amendments in order to begin implementing it immediately," Qureia said.

Ziad Abu Amr, a Palestinian legislator, said Bush offered nothing concrete to the Palestinians, such as renewing contacts with the Palestinian Authority after Mahmoud Abbas, Arafat's deputy in the PLO, is confirmed as prime minister. The two met on Friday afternoon.

One outstanding question has been how much power a prime minister would have.

"Basically we see eye-to-eye with President Bush, we share his vision, and like President Bush we believe that only when there is a (Palestinian) prime minister fully empowered and committed to fighting terror will Israel be able to consider negotiations," said Peled, the Israeli government spokesman. "We are still studying the Bush statement."

Jordan, whose population is 60 percent Palestinian, welcomed Bush's words and said it would work with all parties to ensure implementation of the road map.

"It is necessary for all parties to be committed to the clauses of the map without performing any amendments or changes until the ending of the Israeli occupation and the establishment of a Palestinian state in three years," said Foreign Minister Marwan Muasher.