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Israeli and Palestinian leaders take first steps toward peace

Associated Press

AQABA, Jordan — Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas launched a groundbreaking peace plan Wednesday with President Bush’s encouragement, offering once-unthinkable pledges in hopes of ending decades of Mideast bloodshed.

In statements choreographed by the United States, Sharon promised to immediately begin dismantling unauthorized Jewish outposts on the West Bank, while Abbas — speaking in Arabic — explicitly asserted that the “armed intifada must end,” referring to the Palestinians’ 32-month uprising against Israel.

“Our goal is clear, and we will implement it firmly and without compromise: a complete end to violence and terrorism,” Abbas promised.

Sharon and Abbas stood alongside Bush and Jordan’s King Abdullah II at matching lecterns set up at the monarch’s summer palace on the Gulf of Aqaba. “Good job,” Bush quietly remarked as each prime minister completed his address.

The summit had as much symbolism as substance. What was important was that television audiences throughout the Mideast saw Sharon, Israel’s most prominent hawk, and Abbas, the new Palestinian prime minister, shake hands and agree to plunge ahead with difficult commitments to achieve peace. And just as importantly, Bush stood before the cameras and pledged to stay involved, staking his prestige on an endeavor that has no guarantee of success.

“The failures and frustrations of the past have left many disbelievers in their wake,” Abdullah said as he declared support for the peace plan. Bush told reporters later he was cautious about the outcome because other efforts have failed, most notably the collapse of an initiative by Bill Clinton at the end of his presidency.

“I’m the master of low expectations,” Bush said. “We accomplished what I hoped we’d accomplish.”

The summit, marking Bush’s biggest step into Mideast peacemaking, revived optimism in a region seething with suspicion and skepticism aggravated by the U.S.-led war against Iraq.

Sharon’s government had already accepted the peace plan in principle despite deep reservations, and Abbas had already pledged to crack down on violence.

Bush welcomed Sharon’s public commitment that “we will immediately begin to remove unauthorized outposts,” a painful step for the prime minister since he is an architect of Jewish settlement expansion in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The president, flying to Qatar later, told reporters, “He said he would dismantle them. We now expect him to dismantle them.”

The issue of Israeli outposts and settlements is one of the most divisive points between Israel and the Palestinians.

As for whether Sharon’s promise went far enough, Secretary of State Colin Powell said, “It’s a good start. It will show to the Palestinian people and to the world that Israel is prepared to do things that they were not prepared to do before this meeting.”

Without their government’s approval, Israeli settlers have placed trailers or tents on hilltops, some next to existing settlements, in Palestinian areas. The unauthorized outposts intensified the Palestinians’ conflict with Israel, during which more than 750 Israelis have died, including about 350 from suicide bombings. During the same period, more than 2,350 Palestinians have been killed.

Abbas spoke of the suffering of the Palestinians at the hands of Israel but went on to say, “We do not ignore the suffering of the Jews throughout history. It is time to bring all this suffering to an end.”

“Some amazing things were said,” Bush remarked later. “The prime minister of the Palestinian Authority talked about the suffering of the Jewish people. The prime minister of Israel talked about a Palestinian state.”

Jordan was the next to last stop on Bush’s week-long trip to Europe and the Mideast. He returns to Washington Thursday after visiting U.S. troops at the forward U.S. command post for the Iraq war.

Standing under a hot sun in Aqaba, Bush said, “All here today now share a goal: the Holy Land must be shared between the state of Palestine and the state of Israel, living at peace with each other and with every nation of the Middle East.”

Sharon said his government understands “the importance of territorial contiguity” in the West Bank, a key demand of Palestinians. The prime minister also embraced the principle of a Palestinian state and promised to ease restrictions on the Palestinians.

“As all parties perform their obligations,” Sharon said, “we will seek to restore normal Palestinian life, improve the humanitarian situation, rebuild trust and promote progress toward the president’s vision. We will act in a manner that respects the dignity as well as the human rights of all people.”

Bush said he had assured Abbas that the United States and other countries would send aid to help Palestinians build their security forces to combat terrorism and strengthen the economy.

As a first step, the United States is sending a team of monitors to the Mideast to help carry out the peace plan and keep the parties engaged.

The group will be led by a veteran Foreign Service officer, John Wolf, the assistant secretary of state for nonproliferation.

The Palestinian Authority’s Minister of State for Security, Mohammed Dahlan, said in an interview with Al-Arabiya TV, that all Palestinian factions had to respect Abbas’ commitments.

Dahlan also said the “intifada as a concept of an armed confrontation has ended, but the intifada as a struggle by the Palestinian people as whole in the quest for regaining the rights of the Palestinians will continue.”