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Sharon Likely to Press for Plan Changes

Times Staff Writers

Despite the Bush administration’s insistence that a U.S.-backed peace plan is not open to renegotiation, a deal struck to win Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s acceptance of the proposal virtually guarantees that Israel will be able to press for modifications on a range of important issues before the creation of a Palestinian state, U.S. and Israeli officials said Friday.

After weeks of resisting American appeals, Sharon announced Friday that Israel is prepared to accept the “road map” to peace. But the U.S. agreed in turn to “recognize” a written list of at least 10 Israeli reservations about the plan, American officials said.

Sharon will put the plan before his Cabinet as early as Sunday. Washington expects the decision, if approved, to pave the way for a summit among President Bush, Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas and the Israeli leader in the first week of June.

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Bush heralded Israel’s announcement as important progress. He said a U.S. pledge Friday to address “fully and seriously” Israel’s concerns about the three-phase plan would allow implementation to begin.

Sharon “accepted it because I assured him that the United States is committed to Israel’s security, and that since we’re committed to Israel’s security, as we move forward we will address any concerns that might arise regarding Israel’s security,” Bush said during a news conference at his Texas ranch.

Bush also said he would “strongly consider” the three-way summit, which is expected to take place at the Egyptian resort of Sharm el Sheik. The president acknowledged that achieving peace would not be easy but expressed confidence that he could make headway.

“I understand it’s going to be difficult to achieve peace, but I believe it can happen,” he said. “I’m committed to working toward peace in the Middle East.”

Since the plan was announced more than three weeks ago, the process has deadlocked over the issue of how to stop 32 months of violence. Israel insisted that the Palestinians rein in militant groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad before it moved forward on its own obligations under the plan, even though the blueprint calls for the steps to be taken in parallel.

To break the impasse, U.S. officials concede, they compromised in meetings this week in Washington between Sharon envoy Dov Weisglass and U.S. national security advisor Condoleezza Rice.

“Either we or the Israelis had to budge. It came to the point that if we didn’t budge, there would be no agreement. And in the end we budged,” said a well-placed U.S. official.

“We may not change the road map text. But when the Israelis see something they don’t like, we may end up giving them a pass,” said the official, who requested anonymity.

State Department officials said Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, however, objected to two of the issues on Israel’s list of concerns. The first was the Israeli demand that the Palestinians renounce the right of return now, rather than wait until later in the discussions. The other was Israeli’s request for deletion of references to a recent Saudi Arabian initiative outlining terms for the wider Arab world’s recognition of the Jewish state.

Unveiled by the Bush administration on April 30, the plan calls for a series of reciprocal steps leading to Palestinian statehood by the target date of 2005 and the parallel creation of a secure, peaceful environment for Israel. The U.S., United Nations, European Union and Russia are sponsors of the plan and had urged Israel to accept it.

U.S. officials had said repeatedly that they wanted the Israeli and Palestinian governments to accept the plan in principle without getting bogged down in debating its specifics.

The question that remains after Sharon’s announcement Friday is how much flexibility any party to the plan will have to demand substantive changes. Although both sides have objections, the Palestinians, under U.S. pressure, endorsed the peace plan two weeks ago.

On Friday, the new Palestinian government welcomed Israel’s announcement, calling it a “positive step.” But Information Minister Nabil Amr also said the Palestinians were counting on American assurances that no amendments would be made to the plan.

On that score, Powell said in Paris that the proposal is not subject to change.

But the U.S. has given Israel a “letter or an assurance” that the question of refugees will arise earlier in the process than originally stated, at the same time the two sides begin to hash out specifics surrounding creation of a Palestinian state, said Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Jonathan Peled.

Palestinians have insisted that those who became refugees when Israel was created in 1948 should have the right to reclaim the land they lost.

Israel also asked that it not be required to produce tangible results -- turning over land to Palestinians, for example -- without a monitoring system in place to verify that the Palestinians are taking required steps to fight terrorism.

And the Bush administration acceded to Israel’s request that implementation would be monitored just by the U.S., Israeli officials said.

“We don’t need the Europeans here, they’ve been detrimental to us,” said Sharon advisor Raanan Gissin, reflecting a frequently voiced perception in Israel that many European governments are sympathetic to the Palestinians.

Israeli political analysts said Sharon, who easily won reelection in January, should be able to win majority support for the plan in his Cabinet, despite the announced opposition of several hard-line government ministers and leaders of Jewish settlers.

“The road map is an assisted suicide plan that leads Israel straight into the Mediterranean Sea,” said David Wilder, a settler in the West Bank city of Hebron. “The fact that the United States is willing to take into account Israel’s worries is totally worthless.”

Middle East analyst Joseph Alpher said endorsing the plan’s provisions, including one calling for the creation of a Palestinian state, would be difficult for many in Sharon’s coalition. But he added that most members, depending on the language of a resolution endorsing the plan, would be likely to go along.

“My sense is that he can pull this off,” Alpher said of Sharon. “He can find language that is acceptable to most of his government and to the Americans too.”

But some experts said that even Cabinet approval may not mean much.

“This will be largely a rhetorical move because the chances of the plan ever being implemented are extremely small,” said political scientist Gerald Steinberg of Tel Aviv’s Bar-Ilan University, who maintains that the Palestinians will not follow through on their obligations under the plan.

The United States has always viewed the plan to be “simply a tool” to guide the parties toward a two-state solution, a senior administration official said Friday.

That worries some Palestinians. Ziad abu Amr, culture minister in Abbas’ government, said that although he believes it is not wise for the U.S. to consider changes to the peace plan, one party alone should not be allowed to do so.

“What was said about Israeli concerns should also apply to Palestinian concerns,” he said.

Now that Israel has accepted the plan, the onus is on the Palestinians to improve security by cracking down on militant groups, Powell said.

“We are looking for, and believe we will receive from Prime Minister Abbas, 100% intent and 100% effort to bring terror and violence under control,” he said. The need for such efforts was underlined again Friday when a pipe bomb exploded in the Gaza Strip near an Israeli bus, injuring two people. At a rally in the Gazan town of Jabaliya later in the day, Hamas claimed responsibility for the bombing, the sixth carried out against Israelis in a week.

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Correspondents Ruth Morris in Jerusalem and Fayed abu Shammalah in the Gaza Strip contributed to this report.


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