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Arafat leads parade of summit sceptics

Jeruslaem, June 5 (Reuters): The afterglow of a US-led West Asian summit faded today, with Palestinian President Yasser Arafat saying Israel had offered nothing “tangible” and hardliners on both sides vowing to oppose a road map to peace.

Arafat, who was excluded from yesterday’s landmark talks in Jordan but apparently played a behind-the-scenes role, dismissed Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s pledge to uproot some settler outposts in the West Bank as meaningless.

“Unfortunately, he has not yet offered anything tangible,” the Palestinian leader told reporters at his battered West Bank headquarters in Ramallah.

“What’s the significance of removing a caravan from one location and then saying ‘I have removed a settlement’'”

Brought together by President George W. Bush, Sharon and Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas committed themselves to set in motion an international plan to end 32 months of violence.

Aides to Arafat, a long-time icon of Palestinian nationalism, said he was unhappy about being frozen out of the summit at Washington and Israel’s insistence, but worked the phones and followed the proceedings on television.

Bush, cementing his new role as chief mediator in the conflict, won an Israeli promise to start dismantling some recently built settler enclaves and a Palestinian call to end the armed struggle for an independent state.

But the closing speeches were quickly met by vows from Palestinian militants to continue their attacks and a pledge from Jewish settlers to stand firm on occupied land.

World leaders lauded the summiteers, though many Arabs voiced scepticism.

“I don’t think anyone in any quarter is getting carried away with the idea of instant optimism,” a spokesman for British Prime Minister Tony Blair said.

Israelis questioned Abbas’ ability to make good on his promise to convince militants spearheading an uprising for independence to end their campaign of suicide bombings.

Israeli commentators tempered praise for Washington’s reactivated role with words of caution about the chances of implementing a plan fraught with political risk. “The conflict still has not ended, and leaders on both sides have still not said how they intend to translate their positive declarations into actions,” wrote Zeev Schiff, veteran political and security columnist for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.

Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other factions behind attacks on Israelis rejected Abbas’ call to lay down their arms. Chanting “We are all martyrs-in-waiting”, fighters belonging to an armed offshoot of Arafat’s Fatah faction trained with assault rifles and mortar launchers in the southern Gaza Strip. “The road map leads to hell,” a masked spokesperson said, threatening a “painful response” against Israel in the coming days.

The Palestinians questioned Sharon’s commitment to a two-state solution and to dismantling Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, seized by Israel in the 1967 war. Palestinians want the territories for their own state.

An Israeli security source said that next week Sharon would begin dismantling some of the 50 hilltop outposts built by Jewish settlers since March 2001. Israeli officials have said as few as 10 may be dismantled.

Underlining the difficulties that Sharon may face, 40,000 settlers demonstrated in Jerusalem last night against the road map, which charts the creation of a Palestinian state by 2005.

Settlers accused the Right-wing Prime Minister, their longtime champion, of betraying their cause, and political sources said authorities had tightened security around him.

Sharon has made clear he will not make any major concessions such as pulling back troops from Palestinian areas until Abbas takes decisive action to crack down on militants.

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