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U.S. to release "road map" to Middle East peace

WASHINGTON—The United States will mount a forceful diplomatic campaign to implement an international plan for peace between Israel and the Palestinians while war rages in Iraq, according to top State Department officials.

In the coming weeks, the Bush administration hopes to release the so-called "road map," a plan that lays out steps both sides should take to halt two-and-a-half years of violence. Then the administration will coax both sides to take action.

There will be "a fairly aggressive push" to implement the peace plan, which foresees an eventual Palestinian state at peace with Israel, said a senior State Department official. He was expanding on comments in recent days by Secretary of State Colin Powell and President Bush.

Powell was to spell out the U.S. position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in an address to the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee, the principal Jewish-American lobby, on Sunday night.

The secretary of state believes that implementing the peace plan would require difficult steps by both sides, another department official said. That idea is sometimes interpreted as insisting that Israel be prepared to remove Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Bush administration officials say several calculations are driving the renewed diplomatic attempt to end the conflict.

One is an assessment that the Palestinian Authority has made good-faith efforts toward the political and financial reforms Washington has long demanded.

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat recently named Mahmoud Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, to the post of prime minister, bowing—at least in theory—to demands that Arafat relinquish his monopoly on political power.

Washington has said it is waiting for Abbas to be confirmed in the position before making public the diplomatic road map, drafted by the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations.

Still, steps the Bush administration has been waiting for, including an election in Israel and the beginnings of transformation of the Palestinian Authority, "have come to pass. We're in a position to move forward," said the senior official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Powell will ask new Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom to help bolster Abbas' political position, reports from Israel said Sunday. Powell and Shalom meet Monday in Washington.

The help to Abbas could involve Israel removing roadblocks that hinder Palestinians' movement and improving conditions in Palestinian areas, where basic living conditions have declined markedly.

The road map lays out three phases toward creating a Palestinian state in 2005. In the first, Palestinians would end violence, resume security cooperation with Israel and undertake reforms, including some that are already under way. Israel would withdraw its troops to positions they held when the Palestinian revolt began in September 2002 and freeze settlement activity.

Bush caused a diplomatic flap in mid-March when he said during a Rose Garden appearance that Washington would "welcome contributions" to the road map from Israel and the Palestinians, suggesting it was open for further negotiation.

The war in Iraq has increased pressure on Bush from the Arab world and Europe to make Middle East peace.

Bush "understands that the whole world is going to be looking to him to do something about the Middle East once Iraq has been dealt with," Powell said in an interview with a Washington Post columnist last week.

Powell was responding to questions about whether other top administration officials, including Bush, Vice President Cheney and hawks at the Pentagon and National Security Council, feel strongly about solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The senior State Department official said Israel should also feel less under threat—and more able to make peace—because the United States is destroying the Iraqi regime, one of its enemies.

Any new Middle East peace effort faces numerous challenges.

It could founder on continued Palestinian violence, such as the suicide bombing in the Israeli city of Netanya on Sunday that injured 30 Israelis.

And hawkish Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who oversees a right-wing government, has consistently demanded that the first concessions must come from the Palestinians, not Israel.

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(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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