Israel's return to 'road map' a blow to Palestinians

JERUSALEM Wed Apr 1, 2009 9:17pm BST

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JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman wants to turn back the clock to a time when Israel, as a policy, would not enter final negotiations on a Palestinian state until commitments under a 2003 "road map" were met.

This cannot be good news for U.S. President Barack Obama, who wants peacemaking to resume but has yet to spell out in what form, analysts and diplomats said.

Refusing to enter final-status negotiations until the Palestinians meet their road map commitments, including a crackdown on militants, was Israeli policy under former prime ministers Ariel Sharon and, initially, his successor, Ehud Olmert.

But much to the chagrin of rightists like Lieberman, who now dominate the government of new Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, that policy changed at a November 2007 peace conference in Annapolis, Maryland.

As part of efforts by then-U.S. President George W. Bush to shore up Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in his power struggle with Hamas Islamists, Olmert agreed to enter so-called final-status talks over statehood borders, and the fate of Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees.

The long-stalled road map peace plan, introduced by Bush in 2003, would be implemented alongside final-status negotiations.

Olmert later tempered the concession by insisting a Palestinian state would only come into being once commitments under the road map were met.

Palestinians decried what they saw as a "shelf agreement" that would only give them a state in the distant future, once Abbas found a way to end Hamas's rule in the Gaza Strip and to crush other militant groups that oppose a peace deal.

Lieberman, who quit Olmert's cabinet after Annapolis to protest talks over Jerusalem, made clear in his inaugural address as foreign minister that Annapolis is dead and peace efforts could only move forward on the basis of the road map.

'NO TALKS SOON'

"That means no serious talks anytime soon," a senior Western diplomat said.

The first phase of the road map calls on the Palestinians to rein in militants and to build up governing institutions. It also calls on Israel to freeze all settlement activity and uproot outposts built without government approval.

Lieberman and Netanyahu advocate expanding settlements, not freezing them, whereas Abbas has mounted a major crackdown on Hamas in the West Bank.

While he rejected Annapolis, Lieberman said the new government would "work exactly according to the road map," and would be "meticulous" in implementing its three phases.

He said this meant checking "every dot in every phase" and vowed never to agree to "go straight to the final phase: negotiations for a final status agreement."

Nicolas Pelham of the International Crisis Group said the new Israeli government's stance created the "potential for confrontation" with Washington.

"It is the view of this government that by trying to reach a final settlement, you're putting the cart before the horse," Pelham said, whereas Obama wants talks to resume now simultaneously with Palestinian security and institutional reforms.

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said Lieberman was using the road map's phasing as a "pretext" to avoid peacemaking.

"He's trying to rewrite the road map to suit his agenda of refusing to stop settlement activities and to negotiate on the core issues," Erekat said.

But in embracing the road map, Lieberman took a step towards meeting at least one of the international community's demands: acceptance of a two-state solution.

The road map's title line reads: "A performance-based roadmap to a permanent two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict."

Likewise, the road map calls on the Israeli leadership to issue an "unequivocal statement affirming its commitment to the two-state vision of an independent, viable, sovereign Palestinian state living in peace and security alongside Israel."

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