JERUSALEM - After months of delays and debate, diplomats formally deliveredyesterday an outline of the U.S.-backed Middle East peace plan called the"road map" to the Israeli and Palestinian prime ministers.
When and in what form the two sides will respond remained unknown, butPresident Bush said yesterday that he would press hard for the plan quicklybeing put into effect so the region can "immediately end the violence andreturn to a path of peace."
Bush added that "an opportunity now exists to move forward."
The road map, published on the Internet months ago and debated here longbefore yesterday's unveiling, was presented a day after a new Palestinianprime minister, Mahmoud Abbas, was installed after calling the armed uprisinga failure.
But it also came just hours after a Palestinian suicide bomber killed threebystanders in an attack at a seafront bar next to the U.S. Embassy in TelAviv, thereby underscoring the difficulties in ending violence that has leftmore than 3,000 people dead in the past 31 months.
Still, foreign leaders hailed the delivery of the plan as a signal thatU.S. diplomats are prepared to devote significant attention to the region.
"I do not underestimate the commitment it will require, but the prize isenormous," said British Prime Minister Tony Blair, adding that the road map"places clear but fair obligations on both sides to achieve a final andcomprehensive settlement."
In Washington, Dan Bartlett, Bush's top communications adviser, said thatIsraelis and Palestinians would have to expect setbacks and "keep an eye atthe end of the road" to achieve a lasting peace.
"We have seen when there have been steps forward, those who don't wantpeace and security lash out and attempt to derail the peace process," he said."This is going to require an enormous amount of leadership on both sides ofthe issue, to not let that deter us from achieving our objectives."
Diplomats from the United Nations, the European Union, Russia and theUnited States - a consortium known as the Quartet - drew up the road map lastyear. It calls for Israelis and Palestinians to make simultaneous concessionsthat will lead, step by step, to an independent Palestinian state by thesummer of 2005.
For example, at the onset, Palestinians would be required to dismantle anddisarm militant groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad, and collect illegalweapons. Israel would be required to freeze the growth of Jewish settlementsin the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and dismantle illegal settlement outpostsbuilt since 2001.
Confronting popular militant groups could spark a civil war amongPalestinians, and it remains to be seen whether Abbas and his new head ofsecurity, Mohammed Dahlan, will take up the challenge. Also, Israeli PrimeMinister Ariel Sharon's right-wing government is unlikely to accept evacuatingsettlements, which even Sharon has acknowledged would have to be done tocreate a viable Palestinian state.
While both sides say they back the plan, there is considerable debate overwho should make the first move and how each step should be implemented.Israeli officials object to timelines, while the Palestinians want concessionson parallel tracks.
The envoys delivered the road map with little fanfare yesterday. About 3:30p.m., the U.S. ambassador to Israel, Daniel C. Kurtzer, arrived by motorcadeat Sharon's Jerusalem residence and was quickly ushered inside and out ofpublic view.
About 90 minutes later, U.N. Middle East envoy Terje Roed-Larsen handed theplan in a red folder to Abbas - but not to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat,who is viewed by some as an obstacle - in his Ramallah office. Abbas wasflanked by several of his newly approved Cabinet ministers, and the ceremonywas broadcast live on CNN.
Sharon and his aides have set a number of preconditions for thePalestinians, such as the end of all violence and the jailing of militantleaders before Israel would take its first steps.
Yesterday, Sharon's office issued a statement saying that Israel welcomedthe road map "in order to receive comments on the text of the map" - whichPalestinians interpreted as a bid by Israel to amend sections it does notlike. Earlier this month, Sharon sent one of his top aides to Washington toraise various objections to the plan.
On Tuesday, Palestinian Cabinet Minister Saeb Erekat told reporters that hehad been assured by Bush administration officials in December that the roadmap was "as is and final" and that no changes would be tolerated. Abbas, inhis inaugural speech, warned that further negotiations on the provisions ofthe road map would mean its demise.
"The road map must be implemented, not negotiated," he said, adding thatthe issue of Jewish settlements continues "to be a major threat to thecreation of a Palestinian state with genuine sovereignty. Thus, settlementsare the primary obstacle to any peace process."
Palestinian leaders argue that by appointing Abbas prime minister andcurbing Arafat's powers, they have already completed the first stage of theroad map calling for internal Palestinian reform and that it is now Israel'sturn to make concessions.
The road map does not offer solutions to other contentious issues, such asthe future of Jerusalem and whether the city would be divided with both sideshaving it as their capital, and the demands by Palestinians that refugees fromthe Arab-Israeli wars be allowed to return to Israel.
Both sides agree that the success or failure of the plan will come down tohow firmly U.S. diplomats referee disputes and push the two sides forward.Bush said he will send Secretary of State Colin L. Powell to the region May 8to meet with Abbas and Sharon. He also said he would invite Abbas, but notArafat, to a meeting at the White House.
Powell has made it clear that the initial burden is on the Palestinians,who must show a willingness and ability to stop violence against Israelis.Yesterday's bombing in Tel Aviv gave Abbas' new government a serious test, andIsrael held off retaliating as part of a grace period for the new primeminister.
Palestinian leaders condemned the attack and said that Abbas instructedDahlan to hold talks with militant leaders in hopes of winning a temporarycease-fire, something Palestinian officials meeting in Egypt failed toaccomplish during months of talks.
Hamas and Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, a militia loosely affiliated withArafat's Fatah faction, claimed joint responsibility for the bombing. In astatement to the Associated Press, they said it was carried out in part as amessage to Abbas that "nobody can disarm the resistance movements without apolitical solution."
Israeli police said yesterday that two Palestinians, both of whom heldBritish passports, were involved in what was to have been a dual attack.
The suicide bomber was identified as Asif Mohammed Hanif, who authoritiessaid entered Israel from the Gaza Strip.
Authorities were searching for the second man, identified as Omar KhanSharif, who escaped after his bomb malfunctioned.