Israel's acceptance of road-map wins a cautious welcome

American and Palestinian officials cautiously welcomed Israel's acceptance of the Middle East "road-map" to peace yesterday, although it was still far from clear how committed the Israelis were to the plan in its current form.

Ariel Sharon, the Israeli Prime Minister, has objected vociferously to the freeze on Jewish settlements in the occupied territories stipulated in the peace plan, and has insisted that the Palestinians must halt all violence before Israel can sign up.

The Americans insist that the road-map, which aims to create a Palestinian state by 2005, cannot be changed. That pledge is the key to Palestinian participation in the process - but at the same time Washington promised yesterday to address Israel's concerns "fully and seriously".

The success of the peace plan will hinge on resolving that apparent paradox.

American officials have indicated that they might propose adding annexes or side letters to the main document, but it remains to be seen whether that would be acceptable to the Palestinians. The official American position is that any changes must be discussed between the Israelis and the Palestinians directly. The Palestinians, who have already accepted the road-map, appeared to be at least a little ambivalent about what lay in store. "We consider the Israeli acceptance as a positive step," the Palestinian Information Minister, Nabil Amr, said, "but at the same time we still insist on the American and European promises and guarantees not to have any changes in the road-map."

The Israelis have a fundamental objection to the road-map's insistence that concessions by the two sides should be made in parallel, rather than on a conditional basis. In particular, the Israelis say they do not want to make any commitments until the Palestinians have demonstrated they can stop attacks on Israeli civilians. They are also concerned about language alluding to refugees - the right of return of millions of Palestinians is something they have always staunchly resisted.

Rather than get into the nitty gritty, however, yesterday's agreement by the Israelis appeared primarily aimed at getting peace talks up and running and postponing the difficulties to a later date. Under the road-map, peace would be undertaken in a series of reciprocal steps culminating in the establishment of an independent Palestinian state in 2005.

The details of the Israeli agreement were thrashed out earlier in the week by Bush administration officials and Dov Weisglass, chief of staff to Mr Sharon. The quid pro quo was that the Israelis would sign on to the road-map only after the Americans made a public statement promising to address their concerns.

As it turned out, the Americans made two statements, one from President George Bush's ranch in Crawford, Texas, and another made directly by Colin Powell, the Secretary of State, at a news conference in Paris.

Administration officials said their goal had been to find a form of words that would allow Mr Sharon to personally endorse the road-map, while still making it possible for him to tell his cabinet that he had made no important concessions. One US diplomat told The New York Times: "The idea is that Israel accepts the principles, the framework and the process of the road-map and the two-state solution. But Israel would not accept every detail. It doesn't mean Israel won't have comments on certain issues."

President Bush has let it be known that he would like to host a summit for the Israeli and Palestinian prime ministers, Mr Sharon and Mahmoud Abbas, next month.

Apart from its impact on the Middle East itself, the summit is politically important to Mr Bush as a way of reassuring the world - and his main ally Tony Blair - that he is still interested in diplomacy despite his go-it-alone attitude to the war in Iraq. Possible locations for the conference already under discussion include Geneva and Sharm el-Sheikh in Egypt. A Middle East trip could potentially be tacked on to a visit to Europe next month.

Mr Sharon's decision to sign up to the road-map - expected to be endorsed by the full Israeli cabinet early next week - was an essential precondition for the summit to go ahead.

"Prime Minister Sharon accepted the road map, and that's progress," Mr Bush said from his ranch in Crawford yesterday. "I understand it's going to be difficult to achieve peace. But I believe that it can happen."

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