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Egypt clash over israel refusal accept road map { May 12 2003 }

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Powell, Egypt Clash Over Israel's Refusal to Accept 'Road Map'
Borders Tightened as Israeli Military Limits Travel to Gaza Strip

By Glenn Kessler and Molly Moore
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, May 12, 2003; 4:27 PM

CAIRO -- Secretary of State Colin L. Powell clashed with his Egyptian counterpart today over Israel's refusal to endorse a new U.S.-backed peace plan. He said it makes "no difference" whether Israel declares it accepts the document, but Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher said embracing it is important, remarking that "accept is not a dirty word."

Further complicating the picture as Powell came here from talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders, the Israeli military imposed the tightest crackdown on travel between Israel and the Gaza Strip since the current Palestinian uprising began in September 2000, closing Gaza's borders to everyone except diplomats and aid workers. Maher indicated the tightened closure undercut earlier gestures announced by Israel to ease Palestinian suffering that Powell had hailed as "very promising."

At the same time -- and adding to the impression that Powell's tour has not eased tensions -- three Palestinians were killed by Israeli forces in the Gaza Strip, including a farm worker who Palestinian news reports said was tilling a field near an army observation post in Khan Yunis in southern Gaza.

Israel's position on the peace plan, known as the road map, has stirred anger in the Arab world and has become a major point of contention during Powell's tour of the region. Palestinian officials have accepted the road map, and they complained that Israel's crackdown in Gaza belied the symbolism of any of the gestures announced earlier.

"The Israeli side did not use the word 'accept,' " Powell told reporters after meeting here with President Hosni Mubarak. "It makes no difference whether you have a word 'accept' or not have the word 'accept.' " Instead, he argued, "rather than focus on that particular issue, I am focusing on it, appropriately so, on the steps that we can take."

But Maher, standing next to Powell, retorted, "It seems to me a little strange that if you are willing to do things, you are not ready to say you are willing to do that. The word 'accept' is not a dirty word. I think it will be a very useful word."

The document was the product of months of negotiations involving the United States, European Union, Russia and the United Nations, and those other parties are committed to its implementation. So Powell has given it support, while at the same time appearing content to let it stay in the background as he pushes for confidence-building steps on the ground.

Powell's visit to Egypt -- to be followed by trips to Jordan and Saudi Arabia -- is designed to drum up Arab support. All three nations have been involved in helping build a Palestinian government; Egypt and Jordan are also helping restructure Palestinian security forces.

The road map is a three-stage plan that envisions creation of a Palestinian state after a series of reciprocal steps. But Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who will meet with President Bush in Washington May 20, has raised more than a dozen problems with it.

"It's very unfortunate that we begin the process this way," said Saeb Erekat, chief negotiator for the Palestinian Authority. "There is a message that Sharon is sending to everyone: We will not accept the road map, and secondly, it's our road map, it's not Americans' roadmap."

Powell met Sunday with the new Palestinian Authority prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas, but refused to meet with the Authority's president and longtime Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat. Maher noted that Arafat selected Abbas and said Egypt will continue to meet with him. "We continue to recognize him as the leader of the Palestinian people," he said.

Maher dismissed Israel's announcement in the wake of Powell's visit that it would release a few dozen prisoners, provide more work permits and take some other measures to ease the military crackdown. The steps "would have been a good indication had they not been accompanied by actions on the ground that certainly go contrary to a desire to solve the problem of peace and tensions," he said, in apparent reference to the Gaza closure.

A senior State Department official traveling with Powell defended the secretary's efforts, asserting that the Israeli actions demonstrated he was making progress. "They start to address issues the Palestinians raise constantly with us," he said. "By no means do they solve this. The important thing right now is to get people to do things."

The official declined to discuss the Gaza crackdown. "I don't think we know enough about the Gaza situation," he said.

The Gaza closure spurred a complaint from the Jerusalem-based Foreign Press Association. "The fact that the restrictions that have been suddenly imposed are open-ended and that no allowance whatsoever has been made for journalists' entry and exit is extremely disturbing and suggests an utter disregard for basic press freedoms,' it said.

Palestinian officials also dismissed Israel's decision to release 180 of the more than 5,000 Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails as a hollow gesture. Israelis released 63 prisoners on Sunday and another 35 today, about half of the promised number, according to a Defense Ministry spokeswoman.

Most of those released today were Palestinian laborers nabbed in Israel without work permits, according to Palestinian journalists who met the prisoners when they were dropped at an isolated border crossing with Israel near the southern end of the West Bank.

Moore reported from Jerusalem.

2003 The Washington Post Company

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