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W. Asia rivals delay peace meet, deny rift

Jerusalem, May 27 (Reuters): The Palestinian and Israeli Prime Ministers today delayed a meeting on the US-backed “road map” to peace, but dismissed any talk of a new rift ahead of a summit with US President George W. Bush.

The postponement of tomorrow’s talks between Israeli leader Ariel Sharon and Palestinian Premier Mahmoud Abbas sent an ominous signal, but officials on both sides said it was due to scheduling problems and not political differences.

“The meeting...was put off for technical reasons,” Palestinian information minister Nabil Amr said.

The Palestinians said Sharon and Abbas might meet on Thursday, but Israeli officials said no new date had been set.

The road map outlines reciprocal steps leading to an end to 32 months of violence and creation of a Palestinian state by 2005. Israel’s Cabinet approved the plan on Sunday, with reservations. The Palestinians accepted it last month.

The Palestinians say an Abbas-Sharon meeting would help set the tone for the summit expected next week with Bush, but are also concerned by a list of 14 Israeli reservations about the road map which appeared in some Israeli newspapers today.

“Not only will we not accept them (the reservations), we will not even discuss them,” Amr said. “We hope the US administration pursues its commitment to the text of the road map and lives up to its promise not to change it because any change will kill the plan.”

Implementation of the road map is unlikely to start before the summit expected between Bush, Sharon and Abbas in Jordan’s Red Sea port of Aqaba or Egypt’s Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh. However, no date has been announced for the summit.

Sharon aides, foreign and defence ministry officials and representatives of the security services and army were meeting in Jerusalem to plot Israel’s strategy for the summit.

Bush, who may also meet moderate Arab leaders for a separate summit in Sharm el-Sheikh, wants to ensure the success of the most ambitious West Asian peace plan in two years.

He pressured Sharon and his Cabinet into accepting the road map after Washington promised to address Israel’s reservations during the plan’s implementation but ruled out making changes.

Sharon defended the road map to legislators from his Right-wing Likud party yesterday, saying he also had doubts about the plan but realised Israel could not continue its occupation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip forever.

Israelis were left asking whether Sharon, long a champion of Jewish settlements on land seized in the 1967 war, had had a change of heart or chosen his words to appease the US, Israel’s key ally.

According to the list of Israel’s reservations published in newspapers, the Palestinians would have to waive the right of return to what is now Israel of Palestinians who fled or were forced to flee when the Jewish state was created in 1948.

Another Israeli demand is for there to be no discussion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip apart from the plans already outlined for freezing settlement expansion and dismantling illegal outposts built since March 2001.

Arab nations and Israel came together today to warn that extremist groups and global terrorists would likely try to derail a new West Asian peace plan with attacks.

A declaration at the end of a meeting of foreign ministers from the EU and West Asia put aside political differences for a general condemnation of terrorism.

“It is most probable that extremist groups will target the road map trying to derail it and bring havoc to the region,” the statement warned.

It said there was “an urgent need to go further than condemning terrorism, violence and human rights violations.”

“Differences regarding the definition of terrorism should not prevent the partners from identifying areas where they can cooperate.”

Egypt is likely to host a US-Arab summit in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh next week to push the US-backed “road map” for peace, Egypt’s official Middle East News Agency reported today.

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