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Israel Throws Mideast 'Road Map' in Doubt

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Israel Throws Mideast 'Road Map' in Doubt

Tue May 6, 6:40 PM ET

By MARK LAVIE, Associated Press Writer

JERUSALEM - Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon threw a U.S.-backed peace plan into doubt Tuesday, saying the Palestinians must drop their demand for Arab refugees' "right of return" to Israel if negotiations are to proceed.

Israel has always objected to the right of return for about 4 million Arabs who fled the war that followed Israel's creation in 1948, but never made renouncing the demand a condition for peace talks before.

The new Mideast plan unveiled by Washington last week says the fate of the refugees will be negotiated in the third and final stage of the so-called "road map." The right of return is a cornerstone of Palestinian policy.

But Sharon told Israel Radio the renunciation by Palestinians "is something Israel insists on and sees it as a condition for continuing the process." The interview marked Israel's Independence Day celebrations.

Israeli officials said the renunciation would have to come before creation of a provisional Palestinian state in the second of the plan's three phases.

The Palestinians already have accepted the road map, which seeks to end 31 months of bloody Mideast violence and lead to a peaceful resolution of the Israel-Arab conflict.

Israel refuses to take blame for the consequences of the two-year war after its creation, when Arab armies invaded the nascent Jewish state and about 700,000 Palestinians fled or were expelled from their homes.

Sharon called the right of return "a recipe for the destruction of Israel," because it would flood Israel with Arabs. Statistics released on the eve of Independence Day showed there are now 5.4 million Jews and 1.3 million Arabs in Israel.

Palestinian Cabinet Minister Saeb Erekat said Sharon is stalling and trying to kill the plan.

"I think the end game here of Mr. Sharon is trying to extend the time until the American election in order to avoid implementation of any the provisions of the road map," Erekat said.

Sharon said that in the coming days, there would be another discussion in Washington over the 15 objections Israel has raised, delaying the start of the process.

Israel demands that before anything else is done, all Palestinian attacks must cease. The United States says steps must be taken in parallel — Palestinians working to stop attacks and Israel easing restrictions and halting Jewish settlement activity in the West Bank and Gaza.

Sharon confirmed in the radio interview that he had turned down overtures from Syrian President Bashar Assad to resume peace negotiations. He said Syria was trying to ease pressure from the United States to close the offices of extremist Palestinian groups and to stop supporting guerrillas in Lebanon.

After the fighting in Iraq, the United States demanded that Syria stop giving shelter to escaped Iraqi leaders and expressed concern about Syrian chemical and biological weapons programs and its military presence in Lebanon.

"Certainly Syria has an interest in giving the impression that there is a possibility of peace negotiations," Sharon said.

Peace talks between Israel and Syria broke down in 1999.

Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, meanwhile, assigned the powers of interior minister, including command of key security forces, to Mohammed Dahlan, a former Gaza strongman now serving as state minister for security affairs.

In putting together his Cabinet, Abbas kept the job of interior minister for himself, to get around the ruling Fatah movement's opposition to giving Dahlan a senior role.

Fatah officials were upset about what they considered a deceptive move by Abbas, and planned to hold a meeting later Tuesday.

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