Commentary Israelis and Palestinians prepare for a meeting of the heads of government

Israel and Palestine are preparing for a meeting of the heads of government in Jerusalem at night on May 17. On Friday Ariel Sharon held conferences with his ministers to add finishing touches to his forthcoming meeting with Abu Mazen, who planned to hold a conference of his ministers in the Gaza Strip on Saturday morning.

The Sharon-Mazen meeting will be the first large-scale contact since the beginning of the Al-Aqsa Intifada on September 28, 2000 and termination of the Israeli-Palestinian negotiating process. Members of the "Middle East quartet" are pressurising the two sides to start implementing the Road Map without delay. A few days ago US Secretary of State Colin Powell met with Sharon and Mazen. Andrei Vdovin, special envoy of the Russian foreign minister, holds regular meetings with the Israeli and Palestinian leaders, and Javier Solana, EU High Commissioner for Foreign Policy, has arrived in the region.

It is expected that Sharon and Mazen will soon meet with President Bush in Washington to discuss the Road Map. The Israeli premier will leave for the USA in the next few days, after which his Palestinian counterpart will do the same.

But many observers believe that the Saturday meeting of the two premiers will not be fruitful, though the meeting itself is a breakthrough. Their positions are still vastly different. The Israeli premier wants to know how the Palestinian authorities plan to fight terrorism, while the Palestinian prime minister will most probably call on Israel to recognise the need of the Road Map as suggested by the Middle East quartet, meaning without amendments which Israel demand.

In particular, Israel wants to force Palestinians to give up even before the talks the right of Arab refugees to return to their former homeland within the boundaries of the current Jewish state. The arrival of 4 million hostile Arabs to Israel can put in question the survival of the country.

The authors of the Road Map put off the issue of refugees and the painful issue of the status of Jerusalem for a later stage of negotiations, which Israel does not like. At the same time, it is rumoured that Abu Mazen says he would do nothing to stop radicals from Hamas and Islamic Jihad until Israel recognises the Road Map in its present form. Palestinians do not like individual elements of the plan yet accept it as a whole. They also demand that Israel should stop creating new settlements in the Palestinian territories and the authors of the Road Map - both Europeans and, to the chagrin of Israel, Americans - seem to accept this Palestinian demand.

Both Israel and the Palestinian Authority are sceptical about the Saturday meeting of their premiers. The Israeli right say that Abu Mazen would hardly be able (and probably does not want) to overcome the resistance of Palestinian radicals set to carry on terrorist actions in Israeli cities. And no road map will be effective in conditions of continued terrorist acts.

For their part, Palestinians point to the ongoing Israeli army operation on the West Bank of Jordan and especially in the Gaza Strip, where five Palestinians were killed in the Arab settlement of Beith Hanun in the past 24 hours. "We should not expect anything positive from those who are even now taking actions against the Palestinian people," Ahmed Kurei, speaker of the Palestinian parliament, said about the forthcoming meeting.

Neither can we expect Palestinian terrorists to mend their ways and live peacefully side by side with Jews, say Israelis.

In other words, there is little hope that the Road Map will produce a miracle and bring peace to the Middle East.

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