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May 06, 2003

Israel Throws Mideast 'Road Map' in Doubt

JERUSALEM - Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon threw a U.S.-backed peace plan into doubt Tuesday, saying the Palestinians must drop their demand for Arab refugees' "right of return" to Israel if negotiations are to proceed.

Israel has always objected to the right of return for about 4 million Arabs who fled the war that followed Israel's creation in 1948, but never made renouncing the demand a condition for peace talks before.

The new Mideast plan unveiled by Washington last week says the fate of the refugees will be negotiated in the third and final stage of the so-called "road map." The right of return is a cornerstone of Palestinian policy.

But Sharon told Israel Radio the renunciation by Palestinians "is something Israel insists on and sees it as a condition for continuing the process." The interview marked Israel's Independence Day celebrations.

Israeli officials said the renunciation would have to come before creation of a provisional Palestinian state in the second of the plan's three phases.

The Palestinians already have accepted the road map, which seeks to end 31 months of bloody Mideast violence and lead to a peaceful resolution of the Israel-Arab conflict.

Israel refuses to take blame for the consequences of the two-year war after its creation, when Arab armies invaded the nascent Jewish state and about 700,000 Palestinians fled or were expelled from their homes.

Sharon called the right of return "a recipe for the destruction of Israel," because it would flood Israel with Arabs. Statistics released on the eve of Independence Day showed there are now 5.4 million Jews and 1.3 million Arabs in Israel.

Palestinian Cabinet Minister Saeb Erekat said Sharon is stalling and trying to kill the plan.

"I think the end game here of Mr. Sharon is trying to extend the time until the American election in order to avoid implementation of any the provisions of the road map," Erekat said.

Sharon said that in the coming days, there would be another discussion in Washington over the 15 objections Israel has raised, delaying the start of the process.

Israel demands that before anything else is done, all Palestinian attacks must cease. The United States says steps must be taken in parallel — Palestinians working to stop attacks and Israel easing restrictions and halting Jewish settlement activity in the West Bank and Gaza.

Sharon confirmed in the radio interview that he had turned down overtures from Syrian President Bashar Assad to resume peace negotiations. He said Syria was trying to ease pressure from the United States to close the offices of extremist Palestinian groups and to stop supporting guerrillas in Lebanon. [more]