Sharon Accepts U.S.-Backed Peace Plan
By RAVI NESSMAN
JERUSALEM (AP) - After weeks of hesitation, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon told the United States on Friday that he accepts a U.S.-backed peace plan that would create a Palestinian state within three years. Sharon said he will present the plan to his Cabinet for approval as early as Sunday.
Sharon's statement came just hours after the Bush administration pledged to ``fully and seriously'' address Israel's concerns about the plan - though Secretary of State Colin Powell said Washington did not intend to change the road map.
The assurances from Bush aimed to spur momentum over the plan, which has stalled over the issue of how to stop violence. Israel wants the Palestinians to rein in militants before Israel moves on its obligations under the plan - though the road map calls for the steps to be taken in parallel.
With the U.S. statement, Sharon should be able to win a majority of support in his Cabinet, though hardline ministers and Jewish settler leaders strongly oppose the plan, said a Sharon adviser, Raanan Gissin.
The Israeli Cabinet will discuss the peace plan on Sunday or Monday, Gissin said.
Just hours after the White House assurance, Sharon's office said the prime minister ``informed the United States that the state of Israel is prepared to accept the steps prescribed in the road map.''
President Bush called Sharon's announcement ``progress'' and said he was considering meeting the Israeli prime minister and his Palestinian counterpart, Mahmoud Abbas.
``If a meeting advances progress toward two states living side by side in peace, I will strongly consider such a meeting,'' Bush told reporters at his ranch in Crawford, Texas. ``I'm committed to working toward peace in the Middle East.''
Officials involved in planning a meeting said a gathering of the three leaders could take place in Egypt.
The Palestinians, who accepted the plan last month, welcomed the Israeli announcement, but reiterated that they had assurances from Washington that the three-stage plan, which envisions Palestinian statehood by 2005, would not be altered.
The Palestinians ``consider the Israeli acceptance as a positive step, 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,'' Information Minister Nabil Amr said.
An Israeli Cabinet vote could pave the way for the first stage of the plan: Palestinians are to crack down on militias, while Israel is to withdraw troops from Palestinian towns and freeze construction in Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
It was not clear from the White House statement whether the United States was addressing Israeli concerns already in the first stage.
Israel has also demanded that the Palestinians drop without further discussion a demand for the ``right of return'' of Palestinian refugees and their descendants - who total around 4 million - to former homes in Israel. The fate of refugees is to be addressed in the last stage of the road map.
At the White House, a senior administration official told reporters that both sides have concerns over the road map, noting Palestinian worries over whether Israel is willing to allow the creation of a viable Palestinian state.
These and other issues will be addressed as the two sides implement the road map, but the formula itself - including establishment of a Palestinian state with provisional borders - will not be changed, the official said on condition of anonymity.
Israeli opponents of the plan stepped up their pressure on Sharon. ``In its present form, the roadmap is a recipe for more terror,'' said Cabinet minister Uzi Landau.
The Jewish settlers' umbrella organization said ``acceptance of the map ... is likely to be interpreted as a prize for terror.''
In the Gaza Strip, meanwhile, the Islamic militant group Hamas attacked an Israeli bus with explosives Friday, wounding two people.
The bombing - Hamas' fifth in a week - was an apparent challenge to Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, who a day earlier had asked the Islamic militant group to halt attacks against Israelis.
Hamas told Abbas it would consider stopping attacks on civilians in Israel, but would continue targeting Israeli settlers and soldiers in the West Bank and Gaza. Israel has said it would not accept a partial truce.
Abbas is trying to avoid using force against the militias - as Israel demands - in part because he may not have enough of a power base to risk a full-fledged confrontation. Hamas has grown in popularity in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, where many Palestinians are embittered by Israeli military strikes and travel bans that cause much hardship.
Earlier this week, Hamas and other Palestinian militias carried out five suicide bombings that killed 12 Israelis and wounded dozens.
The bus attacked Friday was en route from the Jewish settlement of Netzarim in central Gaza to Israel, with 15 people on board, when the explosion went off.
Hamas claimed responsibility during a rally in the Gaza refugee camp of Jabaliya, saying it had targeted the bus with a pipe bomb. The Israeli military said the explosion came from a ``roadside bomb.''
Following the attack, the Israeli army fired tank shells near neighboring Palestinian areas, and soldiers began searching farms, according to residents.