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Middle East: New Peace Plan Expected To Be Released Soon

A new Middle East peace plan drawn up by Washington, the European Union, the United Nations, and Russia looks set to be released this week -- provided the Palestinian parliament approves a new cabinet in a vote today.

Washington, 29 April 2003 (RFE/RL) -- After nearly three years of violence costing thousands of lives, Israel and the Palestinians appear set to test out a new, internationally sponsored plan to bring peace to the Middle East.

The so-called road map to peace -- drawn up by the "Quartet" of Washington, Russia, the European Union, and United Nations -- is expected to be released this week following the approval of a reform-minded Palestinian cabinet.

After being given the go-ahead by Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement, the new cabinet led by Prime Minster-designate Mahmoud Abbas is expected to be approved today.

Washington has linked the peace plan's release to the cabinet's approval, which was delayed by weeks of wrangling between Abbas and Arafat.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, speaking yesterday after talks in Washington with Jordanian Foreign Minister Marwan al-Muasher, said the U.S. is encouraged that a new Palestinian government is set to take power.

"We are encouraged by this development -- the transformation within the Palestinian Authority that will allow the Palestinian people to have a prime minister who can be a responsible partner, working with Israel, working with the United States, members of the Quartet and the countries in the region," Powell said.

The road map calls for the creation of a Palestinian state as early as 2005. To get there, it lists a series of reciprocal incremental steps, including an end to Palestinian attacks and Israeli moves to improve Palestinian lives.

Any resumption in peace talks between the two sides would break a deadlock that emerged after the U.S.-led Camp David talks in 2000, whose failure has been followed by months of Palestinian uprising against Israel.

Analysts and diplomats in Washington say that with the appointment of Abbas, they are hopeful the momentum may be returning to a focus on peace in the Middle East. They say that Abbas, who was backed by Palestinian moderates as well as Washington and Israel, sharply differs from Arafat in how to achieve Palestinian goals.

For 12 years, Dennis Ross was a key figure in U.S. Middle East diplomacy, last serving as former President Bill Clinton's special envoy to the troubled region. Now president of the Washington Institute, a think tank, Ross told a briefing yesterday that to succeed, Abbas will have to build grassroots support among Palestinians.

Ross said that Arafat, considered tainted by terrorism in Washington, still has icon status among many Palestinians, despite their desperate living circumstances. He said that Arafat, who wrangled for five weeks with Abbas before compromising on the cabinet, is likely to create further problems for the new premier.

"There is no way in the world that he [Arafat] simply decides, like an old soldier, he's going to fade away. There is not a chance in the world. This is a guy who sees himself even today the way he always has. He sees himself as being the embodiment of the Palestinian cause," Ross said.

Ross said that Abbas has support among Palestinian moderates but little among average people. Nevertheless, Abbas can build up support, according to Ross, if he delivers for his people.

"He has to deliver a better life, an easing of condition, to be able to breathe again. People have to be able to move, goods have to be able to be moved. Schools have to be reopened. At least some Palestinians have to be able to work in Israel, VIPs [very important people] have to be able to travel. There has to be some sign, in fact, that there will be an end to what Palestinians perceive as the grabbing of land by the Israelis," he said.

By all accounts, security is going to be key to the road map's success. Israel wants all violence halted before it agrees to take any steps laid out in the plan, and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon yesterday called on Abbas to effectively fight terrorism.

Ross said Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, will be hard-pressed to rein in militant groups. The three main Palestinian militant groups -- Hamas, the Islamic Jihad, and the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades -- yesterday rejected plans by Abbas to disarm them.

Ross said Washington's main role should be to ensure that there are no misunderstandings between the two sides as they proceed in their talks. And Ross said Israel will have to take steps to ease restrictions on Palestinians and ultimately cut back on settlements in Palestinian areas.

The former diplomat had praise for recent efforts by Arab states to focus attention on Middle East peace, and encouraged Arab leaders to meet with Abbas and improve his international standing and legitimacy.

Yesterday, Jordanian Foreign Minister al-Muasher had this to say to reporters after meeting with Powell at the State Department: "We support the new Palestinian government and we intend to work with it in order to make sure that the proper conditions are created on the ground that would help in relaunching the peace process."

But Ross urged Arab governments to do a lot more, including giving more financial support to the Palestinian people than they have so far. Ross said Saudi Arabia is the largest Arab donor to the Palestinians, but its contributions are still less than, for example, those of Norway.