U.S. folds up road map, blaming Palestinian Authority

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washington | Now that the “road map” peace plan has failed him, President Bush may be ready to ask for directions.

The Bush administration is quietly folding up the Israeli-Palestinian road map, the U.S.-led peace plan that neither the Palestinians nor the Israelis seem willing to follow.

In recent statements, top Bush officials have made it clear that the plan is moribund and that, for the most part, the Palestinians are to blame.

And after leading with tough talk for two years, the Bush administration is uncharacteristically asking for help and advice from the Israelis, some Arab nations and Europe.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is due to visit Washington in March, and topping the agenda is his contingency plan for unilateral disengagement from the Palestinians — an unimaginable scenario just months ago.

Vice President Dick Cheney is discussing alternatives with European allies during his tour of Europe this week, and the administration has watched with interest news of a Saudi proposal that addresses Israeli anxieties about the prospect of a mass influx of Palestinian refugees.

The most stunning evolution was in John Wolf, the assistant secretary of state who was appointed Bush’s envoy to the region last year. He started out believing more in the optimistic outlook represented by then-Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas than in Sharon’s skepticism.

But that changed on Aug. 19, when a suicide bomb attack on a Jerusalem bus killed 21 Israelis, many of them children.

Wolf said he had persuaded Israel to allow the Palestinians a few days to crack down on terrorists after the attack.

“I have to say on the Palestinian side it was all talk and no action,” Wolf said at a forum here last week hosted by Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. “There was no real effort by the Palestinian Authority to stop the violence.”

The frustration was exacerbated by Abbas’ resignation in September — viewed by the Bush administration and by Israel as a triumph for Yasser Arafat, whose support for terrorism has made him an unacceptable partner for the United States and Israel.

The final straw was the Palestinians’ failure to uncover who was behind an Oct. 15 bombing in Gaza that killed three people traveling in a convoy with Wolf. U.S. officials were appalled that the Palestinians did not even make an effort to find the killers.

Wolf, who is visiting Israel this week, is in the region for the first time since the Oct. 15 attack. He and David Satterfield, the deputy assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs, are pointedly avoiding the West Bank and Gaza, meeting instead with Palestinians in Jerusalem.

The evolving sympathy for Israel helped make the case for two emissaries who arrived here last week to argue Israel’s case for the security barrier it is building in the West Bank — and for the separation plan from the Palestinians that Sharon now favors and that the fence implies.

High-level meetings between administration officials and Dov Weisglass, Sharon’s top adviser, and Yoav Biran, the Foreign Ministry’s director-general were positive, Israeli officials said. They scored a partial victory: a softening in U.S. rhetoric on the security fence.

The fence’s route has been a U.S.-Israel sore point for months because Bush officials believe Sharon wants to use the fence to set parameters for a Palestinian state that would not be viable.

Best of all for Sharon, U.S. officials found sympathy for his plan to begin unilateral separation from the Palestinians unless the Palestinian Authority cracks down on terrorism by midyear. That set the stage for Sharon’s visit in March, when Bush will at least entertain Israeli plans for disengagement.

Ron Kampeas

Ron Kampeas is the D.C. bureau chief at the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.