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With Sharon’s Endorsement, Plan Toward Peace is Ready for Roll-out

In the end, the message from the White House to the Jewish world could have been this: When it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the vision that President Bush set forth last June is like the Torah.

The “road map” peace plan is like the Talmud, explaining that vision — but open to multiple interpretations.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s announcement Friday that he accepts the road map — which came after U.S. officials said they would seriously consider Israel’s reservations during the plan’s implementation — clears the way for more forceful U.S. engagement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

If Bush puts his presidential prestige to work, the road map could mark the first real sign of progress since the Palestinian intifada began in September 2000, said Jon Alterman, director of Middle East programs at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“This is where it becomes an art and not a science,” Alterman said. “You need enough ‘oomph’ to get it moving, but not too much so that each side gets immune to presidential influence.”

Israeli officials had feared that the plan diverged too much from the vision Bush presented in a speech last June 24, in which he called for a change in Palestinian leadership and an end to terrorism before progress could be made toward a Palestinian state.

Reassurance from White House officials that the June 24 speech indeed sets the parameters for the road map allowed Sharon to endorse the plan on Friday.

Sharon’s endorsement came just hours after two senior U.S. officials acknowledged that Israel’s concerns about the plan were valid and that the United States would “address them fully and seriously” during implementation.

The comments by Secretary of State Colin Powell and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice were enough to allow Sharon to bring the plan to his Cabinet on Sunday for a vote.

“He 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,” President Bush said Friday.

At the same time, the statement from Powell and Rice was sufficiently vague that it didn’t thwart the plan, which the Bush administration believes is the right path toward peace.

“We are not planning on making any changes to the road map,” Powell said in Paris on Friday.

Most of Israel’s reservations relate to implementation, the Israeli daily Ha’aretz reported. Israel wants to stiffen the security demands on the Palestinians, delay a settlement freeze until the Palestinians start fighting terror in earnest and ensure that implementation will be monitored only by the United States — not by the European Union, United Nations and Russia, the other bodies that helped the United States draft the plan.

Specifically, Israeli officials fear that the plan calls for irrevocable Israeli concessions before the Palestinians prove they are serious about fighting terror, and that it is too driven by timelines as opposed to performance.

Many in Israel saw the road map as a far cry from Bush’s June 24 speech, which set tough conditions for the Palestinians to meet before achieving statehood.

The Palestinians accepted the plan quickly, and Israel came under growing international pressure when it refused to sign on.

The United States at first seemed understanding, allowing Sharon to accept the plan piecemeal, making small goodwill gestures to allow the Palestinians to begin enforcing security, without binding Sharon to the goal of an eventual Palestinian state and the dismantling of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Despite Israel’s steps on the ground, however, Arab and European governments focused on Sharon’s reluctance to endorse the plan, not the Palestinian failure to crack down on terror attacks. The Palestinians refused to begin fighting terrorism until Israel formally accepted the document.

Increasingly, the White House saw that the road map was becoming an impediment to progress, rather than an inspiration, and sought a way to bring all the parties on to the same page.

The deal was worked out last Wednesday, when Sharon’s chief of staff, Dov Weisglass, met with Rice in Washington. It essentially was the meeting Sharon and Bush were due to have last Tuesday, before a series of terror attacks early in the week killed 12 Israelis and caused Sharon to cancel his trip.

White House officials understood Sharon’s domestic political problems and came up with a political solution that satisfied his needs, while allowing the United States to move forward.

The Palestinians welcomed Sharon’s remarks Friday.

“We consider this Israeli position as a positive step in the right direction,” Palestinian Authority Information Minister Nabil Amr said. “We hope that Israel will shoulder its responsibilities according to this plan.”

Now that all sides are working from the same script, the Bush administration is expected to take a tougher line with the Palestinians, pressing them to curb violence.

Much of the focus will be on Mahmoud Abbas, the new Palestinian Authority prime minister, as he faces the first tests of whether he can steer Palestinian affairs away from the corruption and terrorism that were endemic under the rule of P.A. President Yasser Arafat. However, with Arafat maintaining a significant amount of power and prestige — and, according to reports, actively working to undermine Abbas — it’s not at all clear if he can succeed.

Bush hopes to meet with Sharon and Abbas early next month, possibly in Egypt, while he is traveling in the region.

“If a meeting advances progress toward two states living side by side in peace, I will strongly consider such a meeting,” Bush said Friday.

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