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What hope now for Mideast peace?

By CNN's Kelly Wallace

Israelis and Palestinians are waiting to see how the next weeks and months unfold
Israelis and Palestinians are waiting to see how the next weeks and months unfold

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JERUSALEM (CNN) -- As the U.S.-led military campaign against Iraq nears an end, a common refrain on the streets from Tel Aviv to Ramallah is what will the Iraqi war mean for Middle East peace and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

On a West Bank road, as Palestinians waited to pass through an Israeli military checkpoint, pessimism filled the air.

Some Palestinians said they were skeptical about U.S. President George W. Bush's declaration that once newly-appointed Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, commonly called Abu Mazen, receives confirmation of his cabinet, a "road map" for Middle East peace will be presented to Israelis and Palestinians.

"Every day, Mr. Bush and the others say: We will make the peace, tomorrow, after 10 days, after one month, after one year, but we don't see anything," one Palestinian told CNN last week near the West Bank town of Ramallah.

Israelis, for their part, are not signaling much optimism either.

"If the Israeli government does not sober up and realize that we have to settle an agreement with the Palestinians, then shortly the Americans will force us into an agreement that is good for the Americans, but not good for Israel," an Israeli chef and father-of-two, living just outside Jerusalem, told CNN.

According to a poll conducted shortly after the start of the Iraq war, only 37 percent of Israeli Jews believed there would be a better chance of achieving peace after the war, while 27 percent said there would be less chance of bringing about peace -- 36 percent had no opinion.

The poll by Smith Research, a well-known Israeli pollster, was conducted on March 24, 2003 -- four days after the first coalition strikes on Baghdad targets.

However, in another poll released on April 15, both sides expressed some optimism about the resumption of peace talks.

Seventy percent of Palestinians and 67 percent of Israelis said they believed that a government headed by Abu Mazen would be able to renew negotiations with Israel.

However, only 39 percent of Palestinians and 36 percent of the Israelis believed Abu Mazen would be able to control the security situation and reduce the violence, according to the poll conducted jointly by The Hebrew University in Jerusalem and the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research in the West Bank town of Ramallah.

Sharon: 'Concessions' necessary

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon told Israeli newspaper columnists, in an interview published Wednesday, that he would meet with Abu Mazen as soon as he formed a cabinet, and also said that "concessions" by Israel would be necessary.

Abu Mazen
Abu Mazen

"In my opinion, real peace, peace for generations, peace that does not give rise to suicide bombers or terror organizations, necessitates

concessions," Sharon said in the interview with "Yedioth Ahronoth," one of Israel's daily Hebrew newspapers.

"There are places we will have to evacuate."

Palestinian cabinet minister Saeb Erakat has said that Palestinians are looking for "deeds" not words from Sharon.

The so-called Mideast quartet -- the United States, the European Union, the United Nations and Russia -- met late December and agreed upon a "draft road map" for peace.

According to a copy of the draft obtained by CNN, the ultimate goal is a "final and comprehensive settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by 2005."

In the first phase, the Palestinian leadership must call for an "immediate and unconditional cease-fire to end armed activity and all acts of violence against Israelis anywhere," a first step that would not be contingent upon any moves Israel may or may not make.

At the same time, Israel will be required to immediately bring an end to any actions "undermining trust, including deportations, attacks on civilians, confiscation and or demolition of Palestinian homes and property, as a punitive measure or to facilitate Israeli construction" -- a move also not contingent upon any steps the Palestinians may or may not take.

Settlements under the spotlight

The Bush administration has also repeatedly said that Israel would have to freeze settlement activity. U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said Tuesday: "An essential part of the road map will be to deal with the issue of settlements ... Our position with respect to settlements is quite clear: That has to come to an end."

West Bank settlement
Jewish settlers in the West Bank say they are concerned

Jewish settlers in the West Bank say they are concerned that the U.S., in an effort to appease anti-American sentiment in the Arab world after the war in Iraq, will put significant pressure on Israel.

"I tend to be optimistic that the main pressure will be put on the Palestinians but if (Bush) loses the real perspective, he might put even unfair pressure on Israel as well," a Jewish settler near a West Bank settlement told CNN.

Some observers have questioned whether President Bush, who faces re-election in 2004, would risk alienating the support of American Jews and Christian conservatives, who advocate a strong pro-Israel stance, by pressuring Israel to make concessions for peace.

A senior Bush administration official told CNN that the president was serious about moving forward with the "road map" as soon as Abu Mazen's cabinet was set and approved by the Palestinian Parliament, and that the draft "road map" would be "delivered ... to the parties as it (was) written" in December.

Any comments from both sides will be "welcome" and given "serious consideration," the senior official responded, when asked about Israel's reservations to the current draft.

Many questions still remain

There are still so many unknowns, which may account for some of the pessimism on the part of many Israelis and Palestinians:

• How will the "road map" be received by both sides? Will both sides take simultaneous, unconditional first steps as currently required under the draft "road map"?

• How much political capital will Bush invest to try to bring the two sides to some agreement?

• Will Palestinian militants use the fall of Baghdad and talk of a "road map" to try to step up terrorist attacks against Israelis, in the hopes of derailing the peace process?

• Will the U.S. put diplomatic, political, economic and possibly military pressure on Syria and Iran, accusing those countries of supporting terrorist activities and building weapons of mass destruction? And how could that U.S. pressure on Damascus and Tehran affect Israel?

On the last point, even before the war, Israeli officials made it clear they considered Iran and Syria bigger threats than Iraq, and hoped the U.S.-led coalition would turn its attention to Damascus and Tehran after dealing with Baghdad.

"The U.S. must put heavy pressure on the Syrians," Sharon said in the "Yedioth Ahronoth" interview. "This pressure must be diplomatic and economic, not necessarily military."

An open question is whether Israel's public demand for pressure on Syria and Iran could end up hurting Israel and increasing anti-Israel sentiment in the Arab world.

Syrian officials, along with other Arab officials, have stepped up their criticism of Israel's suspected nuclear weapons program, with Syria introducing a U.N. Security Council resolution Wednesday, declaring the Middle East to be a zone free of weapons of mass destruction.

"We mean all nations without exception, which means Israel of course," the Arab League's U.N. representative, Yahya Mahmassani, said Wednesday.

Israel has refused to confirm or deny the widespread reports that it has nuclear weapons.

Familiar issues facing both sides

For now, Israelis and Palestinians are waiting to see how the next weeks and months unfold, with both sides facing some familiar issues.

The Netanya attack killed 29 Israelis

Israeli Jews, celebrating the Jewish holiday of Passover which began Wednesday, hope there is not a repeat of last year's Passover attack.

In the deadliest suicide bombing of the current two-and-a-half-year-old Palestinian uprising, a suicide bomber blew himself up, killing 29 Israelis sitting down for seder dinner at a hotel in the coastal city of Netanya last March.

Palestinians, for their part, hope for an end to the current tight restrictions they face, with Israeli officials closing off access to Israel from the West Bank and Gaza Strip, after receiving intelligence warnings that Palestinian militants planned to carry out attacks during Passover.

Meantime, the violence continues, with 2,250 Palestinians killed, according to the Palestinian Red Crescent Society, and 744 Israelis killed, according to the International Policy Institute for Counter-terrorism, since the start of the current Palestinian uprising in September 2000.

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