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Sharon ready accept steps road map

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Sharon: Israel ready to accept steps in 'road map'

JERUSALEM (CNN) --Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said Friday that Israel is prepared to accept the steps described in the Middle East "road map" to peace and will present the plan to his Cabinet on Sunday.

While his nod signals progress toward implementing the proposal designed to halt violence in the Middle East, Palestinians expressed disappointment with the White House statement that prompted Sharon's approval.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell and National Security Adviser Condoleeza Rice made a brief pronouncement Friday, carefully negotiated with Israel, that said the United States shares Israel's concerns about the proposed peace plan and "will address them fully and seriously in the implementation."

The United States, Russia, European Union and United Nations drafted the road map, which the Palestinian Authority endorsed without reservations. The Palestinians had asked Israel to do the same.

Israel had requested changes to the document but acquiesced with a promise to support the proposal if the United States acknowledged Israel's misgivings.

The Powell-Rice statement fulfilled that condition and helped pave the way for a possible peace summit in Egypt with U.S., Palestinian and Israeli leaders as early as June.

But an adviser to the Palestinians, who did not want to be identified, told CNN on Friday, "This is not something at all positive. Israel's reservations are simply a means to avoid implementing the road map."

The official said that the more concerns Israel puts forth, the more likely this will be "another document that goes down in our history."

"We are pleased there are no changes to the text" of the "road map," the official said. However, the Palestinians are "frustrated ... [they] were not able to present their reservations," the official said.

The White House said its statement was critical to securing Sharon's support and said any changes would be negotiated with both the Israelis and Palestinians.

Without the Sharon endorsement, "the road map was a dead end," one Bush administration official said.

Acknowledging Palestinian frustration, the official said, "the alternative was nothing. This allows us to start the process and gets Israel on the record as wanting to move forward under the road map."

Sharon's endorsement was negotiated with the United States and included a Bush-Sharon conversation this week. The Israeli leader agreed to embrace the broad outline of the plan in exchange for a commitment that his concerns would be addressed early on if initial progress yields, as the administration hopes, to sustained negotiations.

The statement was the most recent in a series of steps requested by U.S., Palestinian and Israeli leaders.

President Bush refused to publish it as long as Yasser Arafat was the central leadership figure in the Palestinian Authority. The appointment of Mahmoud Abbas as Palestinian prime minister cleared the way for the release of the plan.

The proposal calls for a sequence of security, economic and political steps that leads to a provisional Palestinian state by next year and then "final status" negotiations to set the borders of an independent Palestine by 2005.

Abbas endorsed the plan but said it would be difficult to lean on Hamas and other militant groups and press them to stop violence against Israel if Sharon did not embrace the peace outline. Sharon in turn withheld his support, pending changes or the U.S. statement.

Summit would be new stage in diplomacy
The recent series of suicide bomb attacks has called into question whether Abbas has the political clout to control Palestinian militant groups.

Israel's pending support for the plan clears the way for an Abbas-Bush-Sharon meeting. Such a summit would represent a new stage for the Bush administration's Middle East diplomacy -- and a more prominent personal role for the president in the process at a time many have questioned his commitment in trying to move the parties to accept the road map.

The officials stressed the meeting was not a certainty, but one official said it was looking "more and more likely."

The site under consideration for the three-way meeting is the Egyptian resort town of Sharm al-Sheik, which has been the setting for several major meetings on the Mideast peace process.

The White House has been trying to arrange such a three-way meeting since Sharon's decision to postpone a meeting Tuesday with Bush in Washington. Sharon postponed that meeting after the recent suicide bombings in Israel.

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