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Middle East: Prospects For Road Map's Success Dims With Abbas Resignation

Prague, 6 September 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Prospects for the international peace plan for the Middle East known as the road map appeared to dim on 6 September with the resignation of Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas.

Abbas resigned ahead of an address to the Palestinian parliament in Ramallah. He was reportedly frustrated by his inability to push forward key aspects of the road map and what he considered interference by Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

Palestinian officials played down the significance of the split between Abbas and Arafat and news of the resignation.

Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said regardless of whether the resignation stands, Abbas would still lead a caretaker government and be responsible for meeting the Palestinians' obligations under the road map.

"It's premature to jump to any conclusions at this stage," Erekat said. "Abu Mazen [Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas] is still the prime minister. In accordance with article 79 of the basic law, the caretaker government is a fully empowered government until the moment when the new government is sworn in after getting confidence from the legislative council. So, as far as the road map is concerned, there is a government that's fully responsible for its obligations emanating from the road map, or for that matter, any agreement or any commitment domestically, internationally, or regionally."

Abbas, a moderate and former close colleague of Arafat, was seen by the international architects of the road map as the best hope for ending a three-year Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation.

EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana -- speaking on 6 September in Italy -- said the EU was discouraged by Abbas's move. He said he plans to travel to the Middle East to see what he can do to heal rifts within the Palestinian leadership.

"In the Middle East peace process, we are at the most critical moment lately," he said. "Therefore, whatever we can do should be done. The situation -- from the contacts we have had [so far] -- is still very confusing. It is clear that the prime minister has presented his letter of resignation, but we still do not know what the consequences of that will be vis-a-vis the Palestinian [parliament] and president [Yasser] Arafat."

Swedish Foreign Minister Anna Lindh called the resignation a "big setback" for the whole Middle East peace process.

The European Union, along with Russia, the United States, and the United Nations, form the so-called Quartet that authored the road map.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Ivanov said on 6 September at the EU meeting that the departure of Abbas would seriously complicate the search for Middle East peace. In a statement, the Foreign Ministry said it believes the present contradictions within the leadership of the Palestinian Authority must be overcome.

U.S. Secretary for Homeland Security Tom Ridge said Abbas's resignation would not deter efforts to resume Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations, but it "unfortunately, tragically, it will delay it." Ridge, speaking at a private business conference in Cernobbio, Italy, put the blame on Arafat, saying he had not been a partner in the effort.

Arafat's role had been badly degraded by the quartet, and the Palestinian leader has spent the past months under siege in his Ramallah compound.

Tensions were heightened further on 6 September when Israeli helicopters fired missiles into downtown Gaza, wounding the spiritual leader of the Palestinian militant group Hamas, Sheik Ahmad Yassin. Hamas later said Israel had crossed "a red line" and that Hamas would retaliate.

Hamas leaders in Gaza said that they were now targeting Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

Agence France Presse, quoting an Israeli army statement, reported that Israel had intentionally tried to kill Yassin. The report could not be independently confirmed.

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    Mark Baker

    Mark Baker is a freelance journalist and travel writer based in Prague. He has written guidebooks and articles for Lonely Planet, Frommer’s, and Fodor’s, and his articles have also appeared in National Geographic Traveler and The Wall Street Journal, among other publications.